Ryan T. Cooney
Take Only Memories, Leave Only Footprints
Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Dispose of waste properly. Leave what you find. Minimize campfire impacts. These are some of the tenants of Leave No Trace trail ethics, a widely adopted set of guidelines developed for individuals and groups visiting the wilderness to follow in order to minimize human impact on the environment. The Appalachian Trail, particularly in Grayson Highlands National Park, Virginia exemplifies the benefits of these rules, as this highly trafficked trail is pristine and wild. In unfortunate contrast, the Red River Gorge in the Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky demonstrates what happens when these guides are not followed.
While hiking in the Gorge, the first thing you will notice is the large number of campsites that are very close to the trail within a mile of the trail-head, along almost all of the established trails. These sites tend to be overused and suffer from fairly severe erosion. The ground is littered with trash and broken glass from beer bottles, and the trees in the immediate area tend to be wounded and scarred. This is a far cry from the pine carpeted clearings found well off the trail in Grayson Highlands, where the only signs anyone has camped recently are the damp pine needles in the footprint where a tent stood the night before.
As you continue down any of the Gorge's many trails, you will notice that there are many places where the trail forks only to rejoin itself on the other side of an obstacle, and shortcuts avoiding switchbacks on the side of a ridge seem as permanent and intentional as the trail itself. It seems with hiking trails, where one walks, a thousand will follow. Leave No Trace teaches to keep to the center of a trail, even when wet and muddy to avoid widening or eroding the trail, and not to trail blaze shortcuts. On sections of the Appalachian Trail, people have adhered to this so well that even though thousands have hiked through, the path is no more intrusive than a game trail.
The Gorge is renowned for its breathtaking rock formations, from natural arches to caves and sandstone cliffs. Sadly, even the hardest-to-reach formations are covered in carvings and graffiti. Many rock shelters have been damaged by the smoke of campfires, and some have even gotten so bad as to have been barricaded to prevent people from camping under them. The barricades, intended to protect the areas they block off, are as much an eyesore as the damage that led to their installation. The only true solution is to teach Leave No Trace trail ethics to as many as possible, and make the information available to all who visit the Red River Gorge.
Leave No Trace states that you should “travel and camp on durable surfaces”. At the gorge this would be best interpreted as hiking only on the official trails, and camping in the established campsites found farthest from the trail. When a group is crossing an area where there is no trail, they should spread out to avoid unintentionally creating a new trail. It is also wise to avoid areas where you can still see the impact of a previous group, to allow time for a natural recovery. This helps to reduce the unavoidable impact caused by even the most conservation-minded individuals, and gives the forest its best chance at continued survival.
Perhaps the least practiced guideline is to minimize campfire impacts. Everyone loves a big roaring campfire, but they aren't always appropriate. When back-country hiking, it is preferential to avoid fires when at all possible, cooking by stove and using flashlights or candles for light. When a fire is needed, it is best to keep it small, and use existing fire pits when available. Everything thrown into the fire should be burned to ash, and scattered over an area the size of a football field once completely cooled. When a campsite is left, it should be impossible for the next group to tell that you even had a fire.
In order to preserve an area, you wouldn't want to remove anything from the environment that belongs there. It is important to leave anything you find, where you found it; look but don't take. Leave flowers, rocks, wildlife and artifacts where they lay, so the next group to happen across that spot can see it just as you did, without your personal souvenir missing. Some of the trails at the Gorge are hiked by thousands of people every year. If they all took a plant or a rock with them, it wouldn't be long before things were looking awfully bare. Just as you shouldn't take anything you didn't bring, it is pertinent to make sure you leave with everything you brought.
The most visible concern at the Red River Gorge today is litter. Standard trail practice is to pack out anything you pack in. Any trash you generate as well as any you find should be stored in a bag in your pack and thrown away in a proper bin when you next encounter one, usually at the trail head. Repackage food and beverages to cut down on trash before you hit the trail, and avoid anything in a glass container. Broken glass makes for a very unfriendly campground, potentially cutting feet, tent floors, sleeping pads, and other gear. It seems more and more of my favorite spots at the gorge are covered in broken glass each year. My four-legged friend does not approve.
As if trash on the trail wasn't enough to ruin an otherwise beautiful area, proper disposal of human waste is becoming an issue at the Gorge. The statistics would surely be disgusting as to how many people actually distance their waste from water. It is necessary to maintain a minimum distance of two hundred feet from any body of water when leaving human waste and when washing. Liquids and particles of waste can seep into groundwater and carry into water sources, contaminating the water and, at worst, spreading disease. When latrines are not available, cat-holes should be dug six to eight inches deep, and when done being used, should be covered and disguised. While these things may all seem like common sense, it is amazing to see the impact being made by not taking these simple steps to preserve the places we love to visit.
On May 12th, 2010, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics declared the Red River Gorge as it's inaugural Hot Spot in an effort to “raise awareness for areas with critical recreational impact”. Their goal is to set up programs to educate the public and provide materials about conservation. They will also be teaming up with local associations which help to maintain the area to restore the natural beauty of the Red River Gorge. For their cause to be effective, it will take a public understanding of how to enjoy nature without destroying it. If their efforts are embraced, perhaps the generations to come will see the Gorge in the same awesome glory our generation can find along the Appalachian Trail, as all of the natural areas of world should be. This is a dream that can be made into reality, as long as we are all willing to do our part, and be conservation-minded.