Leave No Trace

By Melanie Gagon

I’ve luckily had the opportunity to travel all over Utah, which has left me with experiences that forever changed me. From deep in the heart of the Uinta Mountains, where I slept outside in the freezing cold weather, to the furthest slot canyon in Zion National Park, where I hiked all day with a sweat-stained t-shirt — and everything in between.

Each experience is unique, and, being the typical writer that I am, each experience left me with a story to tell. For me, hiking and exploring outside are soothing for the soul, creating a peaceful experience for not only myself but for those I am with. The speed of the world has changed so much over the years. Everyone always seems to be in such a hurry; always looking at the next event ahead of them that they miss the beauty of the present. The outdoors are a way for individuals to disconnect from the busy, fast-paced world that we live in now.

One of my family's favorite pastimes is exploring the mountains close to home where we can hike, camp, and fish some of our favorite lakes (and, if you’re my three-year-old, throw rock after rock into the water.) My favorite lake, Strawberry Reservoir, has given me that home-away-from-home feeling every time I visit. I love to roam through the trees and smell the sage from the open meadows. Here, one will see the deep blue, crisp water and hear the calming sounds of the small waves rippling into shore and feel completely satisfied. This lake is so enticing, and when you see it in the early hours of the morning when the shards of first light break over the mountain top, it truly feels like you are enjoying nature the way it was intended to be.

Strawberry Reservoir, Utah

This beautiful lake not only offers great views and spectacular fishing, but the camp spots placed in the middle of the aspen trees entice visitors from all over the state to come and stay for days. Although I have been there numerous times over the years, this last trip left me with a restless feeling that allowed me to reflect on a lot of my adventures and connect all of them with one unwelcome aspect.

Every time we camp at Strawberry, I always get excited about the off-the-road camp spots surrounded by trees; however, this time at closer look I was disappointed to see the way some of the sites were left. Garbage was everywhere, broken tents and chairs were thrown in the bushes, trees were hacked down all around the campsites, and ash from multiple fires spilled out all over the grass and saplings. I’m sure that this lake was overly busy and hectic this year because many of the surrounding lakes were shut down due to toxic algae. With scorching temps this past summer and extremely low water levels, some nearby lakes became the perfect stagnant breeding ground for this blue-green menace. Luckily it never infected Strawberry, but a lot of other people must have felt this way too because after a summer full of public fishing and camping up there, the area just looked worn out and tired.

After seeing this I started thinking about each adventure I went on this last year and realized that wherever I went I ran into some form of vandalism, or trashed campsites. I’ve seen numerous cans and wrappers thrown into bushes and tucked away into the holes and crevasses of amazing landmarks. Despite the fact that some of the garbage and vandalism were extreme, and some were broken bottles thrown onto the ground, it all left me with the same sad feeling. How can people visit these beautiful, amazing places and then just throw their unwanted trash aside like it doesn’t matter?

National Parks have been fighting problems like this for years. According to Jim Evanoff, environmental protection specialist for Yellowstone National Park, “Yellowstone spends half a million dollars annually to remove 3,000 tons of trash that enters the park each year.” (Ournationalparks.us) This website also lists that Denali National Park in Alaska spends about $75,000 a year to get rid of the 140 tons of garbage that visitors bring into the park. That is an extremely large sum of money spent only on trash removal.

Traveling to Zion National Park this summer, in the middle of the peak season, had its ups and downs when close to 2 million other tourists traveled through as well. This park is so glamorous with the red cliffs towering over you and each trail offers something new and different to see, so it’s no wonder people flock from all over the world to visit. I absolutely love the red rock there and I’ve been a repeat visitor for years tackling Angels Landing and the Narrows, which are two of the more popular trails that truly are spectacular. The only downside while we were there was that the trails were flooded with tourists and I saw garbage being thrown into the bushes and squirrels diving into brown paper bags to eat their leftover snacks. Here all of us were in this monumental place, and it was almost as if some of these people didn’t have any respect for it. It was so discouraging to see others do this, when they probably would have never done something like that in their own backyard.

Popular parks with whimsical sites that lure in tourists are constantly facing problems like this but they aren’t the only areas where you run into this issue. It was also evident in some of the more isolated regions I went to. Just a few weeks ago I saw this behavior down at the San Rafael Swell, which doesn’t generate nearly as much traffic as Zions or Yellowstone. This has easily turned into my ‘go-to place’ when I want to get away from the city. The most appealing aspect of the San Rafael Swell that keeps me coming back over and over again is that you can go for a hike and see something new and different every time. There are endless mesas and deep canyons to search and explore. When I am there I feel like this area is vast and has been untouched for years, and when you sit on the rim of the Wedge with your feet dangling over the side of a cliff and see the breathtaking views… you will know exactly what I am talking about! While the littering in this area isn’t as severe as some of the other places I have seen, it is there, and it is an increasing problem even in an isolated spot like this one.

Seeing this over and over again made me realize why more and more trails and dispersed campsites are getting closed down in hopes of preserving what little is left. While there are many good stewards of the land, it’s as if they are overshadowed by what may be the one-off, the person who ruins it for everyone else. To some, there isn’t a sense of preservation anymore, and it seems as if these people who were here before me in each and every spot didn’t care about leaving no trace behind. I’m sure they were only there for a few nights with no intention of ever returning, so they didn’t think it mattered to them, but what about everyone else that wants to visit after they have left? Some parks are starting to put plans into action to help remove unwanted waste, but that can be extremely costly and labor intensive, and there are still the places we go that aren’t managed and don’t have these trash removal systems that need to be cared for too. It doesn’t have to be like this if the people visiting pack out what they pack in. We need to make sure that we aren’t leaving a wake of destruction in our paths. There will never be a true solution unless we tourists join in the effort. May we all clean up after ourselves and help others do the same, because this is likely the only way we will preserve our favorite places for generations to come.

Melanie and her family



Chad Burnham said…
Good piece. I am not sure why packing your own trash out is not common sense as it is for us. We must teach the next generation.
ckk said…
Thanks for posting this. I picked up trash along a Texas beach. Single most common item I was picking up was toothbrushes?

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