It is easy to think of wilderness as untouchable; inviolate and remote, far removed from the buzz of construction and expansion that rings every city. That is part of why we seek the wilderness, after all, to escape the press of civilization and step back into nature. But the areas we call “wilderness” are in truth far more fragile than they first appear. Every ecosystem is a delicate balance built up over millennia; a single misstep, a single lost species, can tip that balance into a swift decline. Too many travelers, no matter how much they love the wild places they visit, can contribute to that decline if they are not careful.
This is where the practice known as “wilderness ethics” steps in. It is not an attempt to keep people out; everyone should have access to our rivers, mountains and deserts, and be able to find peace in those places. The practice of wilderness ethics seeks instead to find a way for visitors to lessen their impact, leaving the wilderness intact so that future travelers can experience the same beauty and wildness that they did. Wilderness ethics are crucial for wilderness adventures in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Just like most of the people who spend a lot of time in wild places, wilderness ethics focuses “more on attitude and awareness than rules and regulations.” It is a philosophy of preservation, aiming to keep the wilderness from being destroyed by those who love it. This is not to say that there are no rules and regulations. Many designated wilderness areas and National Forests have guidelines for how far from trails you can camp, how near streams wash water can be dumped, and where fires are allowed. But wilderness ethics is still at its heart an individual philosophy, and every traveler is free to decide for themselves what their wilderness ethics will be.
Perhaps the most well-known and widely followed philosophy of wilderness ethics is Leave No Trace. This set of seven principles is recommended by the National Park Service as the best way to enjoy a trip through the wilderness while still leaving it intact for future visitors, and is taught by NOLS and the American Alpine Institute as well as many other outdoor education groups. The Leave No Trace principles are based on scientific research as well as “a respect for nature and other visitors,” and are widely practiced by wilderness travelers throughout the United States. The seven principles of Leave No Trace are:
1. Plan ahead and prepare
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
3. Dispose of waste properly
4. Leave what you find
5. Minimize campfire impacts
6. Respect wildlife
7. Be considerate of other visitors
Most are self-explanatory, and describe practices already followed by most experienced backpackers, climbers and whitewater rafters. Simple and easy to remember, the Leave No Trace wilderness ethics philosophy nonetheless does a good job of outlining how to enjoy a trip in our wild places while leaving them intact for other travelers.
The practice of wilderness ethics, while deeply individual, is also a community effort; a way to keep the wilderness wild, to ensure that others can experience the natural beauty that brings us such joy. Whether through Leave No Trace or another philosophy, wilderness ethics really seeks one thing: to experience the wild areas of our world without destroying them, that they may remain open to all. Make sure to think of others during your next wilderness adventure in the Pacific Northwest or wherever your travels take you.
Sources and Further Reading:
“Wilderness Ethics,” National Park Service
“Wilderness Ethics and Etiquette,” US Forest Service https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fsbdev3_058507.pdf
“Seven Principles Overview,” Leave No Trace