On garbage and tolerance in the wilderness

When Rick Bombaci went to work for the U.S. Forest Service in 2010 as a wilderness ranger, his friends were curious. What did he do in the woods all day, besides weave garlands and write poetry?

In conversations at potlucks, he learned to skip fancy terms like “assessing resource damage.” He was a glorified garbageman, he said. His pickup route? Fire pits big enough to lie down in, full of twisted masses of melted beer cans and polypropylene tarps. Tin cans and oozing batteries stuffed into stream banks, trees garroted with steel baling wire and impaled by 12-inch spikes. Moldy canvas tents, sodden camo jackets, rotten cowboy boots, bent tent poles, broken camp chairs, abandoned sleeping bags, rusted-out sheepherder stoves, miles of baling twine, frying pans, coolers, propane canisters, rebar. Fifty-five-gallon drums.

The really old garbage bothered him less, because he was willing to pardon old-timers’ ignorance. After all, even his nature-lover friends seemed unaware of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which defines wilderness as “an area of undeveloped land … retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation … with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.” When it came to the new garbage, however – longer-lasting and more toxic – you’d think: Some people just don’t give a damn. Whatever happened to Lady Bird Johnson and her “Keep America Beautiful” campaign?

Rick doesn’t know if backcountry travelers are leaving as much trash as they did years ago. After all, the Forest Service keeps cleaning it up, removing the evidence of their misbehavior. But this he does know: 60 mule loads of garbage in one wilderness area is about 59 loads too many. Perhaps it boils down to a simple adult maxim. Clean up after yourself. The Wilderness Act is 50 years old. It would be nice if the rest of us grew up, too.

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