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Clueless: Or How Easily One Can Ignore Environmental Ethics

If we take care to act with common sense, caution and respect toward the environment, we can enjoy the outdoors without trashing it in the process.

By Rolf Asphaug

There it was— the perfect campsite! As the leader of a Labor Day trip to Redcloud, Sunshine and Handies Peaks, I'd worried about our group finding a campsite. After all, these were three popular fourteeners. Although the guidebooks indicated camping places near the trailhead, who knew whether or not we'd find any spots on such a busy weekend?

So, as I approached the trailhead in the lead car of a CMC mini-caravan, I signed with relief when I saw an earlier-arriving member of our party beckoning us to join him. He was parked off the side of the road, pitching a tent in a pleasant clearing, and there was plenty of room for the rest of our cars and tents.

We drove off the road to join our companion, set up our tents and spent a pleasant Saturday evening cooking dinner, making small talk and getting ready for the next two days' hikes. None of us had a clue that anything was wrong.

And that's just the problem. We were utterly clueless.

Our Sunday climb of Redcloud and Sunshine peaks was nothing less than wonderful: brilliant sun, calm skies, good company and a panoramic view of dozens of neighboring peaks. But as we came back to camp, we saw something was amiss.

A pickup truck, painted "Government Green" with a Bureau of Land Management emblem, was parked on the road next to our campsite. Pacing next to the truck was one very angry BLM ranger.

"I can't believe you guys did this!" the ranger said. "You're Colorado Mountain Club members! You, of all people, should know better!"

What we had done, of course, was to drive our cars off the road. How could we have missed the nearby signs clearly restricting motorized traffic to the roadway? Even without any signs, how could I— how could our entire group— have driven our vehicles onto a vegetated area without so much as a second thought?

Well, at least I wasn't arrested and led away in handcuffs— although in terms of embarrassment, I might as well have been. After all, I once worked full-time for an environmental organization, and I'm a proud member of the Sierra Club and the Colorado Environmental Coalition. How could I have been such a doofus? I'm sure others in my group similarly chastised themselves. We hastily drove our cars back onto the road and were grudgingly permitted by the ranger to keep our tents up until sunrise.

The next day's hike to Handies Peak just wasn't the same, despite equally beautiful weather and surroundings. I couldn't get that angry, disappointed BLM ranger out of my mind.

This sad little episode of environmental degradation has no doubt been repeated thousands of times, in hundreds of variants, by other basically well-meaning outdoor enthusiasts— off-road driving; camping too close to a stream or pond; making a bonfire; short-cutting switchbacks. However, most transgressors aren't caught red-handed like us. They usually go back home without ever realizing that they did anything wrong.

The common theme to these types of incidents is thoughtlessness— in the literal sense of the word. We just didn't think about what we were doing. Had we done so— had we taken just a moment to stop and use our heads before reflexively turning off the road— at least one of us would have surely reminded the group, "Hey, we're driving off the road! That's uncool!"

But I didn't stop. I didn't reflect. None of us did. All that we were thinking was, "We need a campsite! We need a campsite! And hallelujah, there it is!"

I can think of several lessons from our experience.

First, try not to schedule a hike for a popular weekend to a popular place. There's just too much pressure to make the trip work— to find that "perfect" campsite— regardless of the environmental consequences.

Second, try to take a little extra time to think things through before taking action. Be like emergency medical technicians who follow the "STOP" protocol before responding to a crisis: "Stop, Think, Observe, Plan."

Third and most of all, beware of the dreaded "herd" mentality. Just because someone else is doing it, it doesn't necessarily mean it's right, whether it's taking an ill-advised shortcut, dispensing with emergency gear or trampling across sensitive wilderness areas.

If we take care to act with common sense, caution and respect toward the environment, we can enjoy the outdoors without trashing it in the process.

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