Several years ago, I organized a group of volunteers to help the U.S. Forest Service clean up trash left behind at hunting camps along the Pine River Trail in the Weminuche Wilderness. I was amazed at what we found.
Kitchen supplies, including spices, wrapped in black plastic had been squeezed into a rock crevice for future use. We estimated the stuff had been there for several years. We also found toilet seat covers, black plastic, stoves and more. We found trash buried in most of the campsites.
Burying trash does not make it go away.
Fall means hunting season to those visiting the San Juan National Forest, but to those who work for the Forest Service as employees and volunteers, it also means trash season. Hundreds of pounds of trash and abandoned campsites left behind by inconsiderate hunters in the Weminuche Wilderness each year must be packed out on the backs of wilderness rangers and pack animals.
"It is an 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' ethic that is prevailing," said Columbine District Wilderness Ranger Jim Sumarall.
It's a thankless job and a growing problem. In the Columbine District, six paid rangers and two volunteers cover 132,000 acres of wilderness. As we head into this year's hunting season, they estimate as many as a dozen abandoned campsites and piles of trash still need to be cleaned up from last hunting season. Sometimes they use llamas to haul it out, sometimes they do it themselves. In one instance, two rangers hauled out 130 pounds on their own backs.
Wilderness rangers have several theories as to why hunting season is the trashiest time of year in the backcountry. Inexperienced hunters tend to have inferior equipment that breaks and becomes unusable. Even experienced hunters are guilty of making several trips to bring in supplies but only making one trip out, leaving the gear and trash behind.
"We find cheap, ripped tents and broken poles that are simply left behind," said Columbine District Wilderness Ranger Anne Dalvera. "If people would spend a little more money on equipment, maybe they would have more ownership of their gear and be less likely to leave it in the backcountry. And if they would take the time to educate themselves about backcountry travel and camping, they would be better prepared."
Hunters and other fall visitors typically bring in more gear because it is colder. The desire to evacuate quickly when weather conditions deteriorate is another reason gear and trash are left behind.
"If people have to leave quickly due to weather or other emergencies, we ask that they please go back in later and clean up after themselves," Dalvera said.
Hunters don't just abandon unwanted gear, they leave behind piles of trash. Sometimes they dump it in the holes left by uprooted trees. Sometimes they bury it or hide it in case they come back to the same camp the following year. When people hide supplies like this, they usually never come back, and their cache becomes trash. Caching is illegal in the San Juan National Forest for that very reason.
"This is unacceptable behavior," Sumarall said. "It is also illegal, and culprits are fined, if we can catch them."
Members of the Backcountry Horsemen, llama handlers and others with packing skills volunteer to help the rangers haul out the trash and debris. They say they see it as their civic duty to keep a beautiful place clean for the next visitors.
What the rangers and volunteers don't understand is why some people would leave trash and debris behind in such an otherwise pristine place. I think the Weminuche Wilderness is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It attracts thousands of visitors each year, and if each would just pack out his or her own trash and supplies, it not only would keep this incredible place beautiful for the next visitor, but also might keep a wilderness ranger's back from going out early in life.
Kathe Hayes is volunteer program director with the San Juan Mountains Association.