Conservation

Combating Abuse of Our Public Lands

January 11, 2019

There is an epidemic plaguing our public lands. More and more we are seeing the wild places that we love so much abused by those who are either misinformed or just down-right malicious. Everything from litter scattered around our favorite trails, to an impressive arch covered in spray paint and an amazing overlook point full of carved names. This sort of abuse is embarrassingly common across our nation’s public lands, but the problem seems especially bad here in Kentucky.

It’s time for us, as a community of outdoor lovers, to band together to shed light on this problem and work towards a solution. There’s a lot we can all do to help.

Don’t believe me? Just read on!

The Problem

Before we get ahead of ourselves and start spit-balling ideas of how to combat these issues, let’s first make sure we understand what we’re talking about here. Specifically, I want to discuss the abuse of our public lands. I’m defining abuse, for the purposes of our argument here, as any activity that causes harm or destruction to the land and/or the natural features therein and any organisms which inhabit the area.

In other words, it’s people doing things that they shouldn’t that causes harm to the wild places that we love. Let’s take a look at some examples.

An abused arch.
Unfortunately, our wonderful natural arches are some of the biggest targets for abuse.

Litter

I believe that litter is likely the most common form of abuse our public lands see. The Daniel Boone National Forest certainly sees plenty of it. The problem happens to be especially bad in rural communities, which just so happens to be the sort of areas that the majority of the Daniel Boone National Forest is located in.

Kentucky, as a whole, produces approximately 17 million pounds of garbage every single day. Around 83 percent of households participate in trash collection services, which leaves 17 percent without. This means that the 17 percent without trash pickup are producing around 3 million pounds of garbage every single day (Illegal Dumping: Large and Small Scale Littering in Rural Kentucky)! This begs the question, how are these 17 percent disposing of their trash?

The most common methods are burning it, dumping it down a hillside behind their house and driving it elsewhere to be dumped. While burning the trash can certainly have it’s own set of ecological impacts, it’s the other two that contribute the most to the litter on our public lands.

Dumping the trash behind one’s house may initially seem fairly innocuous. After all, it’s their own property (usually) that they’re dumping on. But, what happens when a large storm rolls through? Suddenly, wind picks up lighter bits of trash and blows it away and the rain washes even more into our waterways. All of this garbage gets carried through the waterways, with some of it being deposited on our public lands along the way.

Pollution of Cumberland Falls.
Example of trash that has washed from upstream on the Cumberland River, eventually ending up pilling up around Cumberland Falls. Image courtesy of Chris Morris.

It’s not at all uncommon to find illegal trash dumps in Kentucky’s national forest. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of sites where people have driven their garbage and dumped it. Everything from standard kitchen waste, to tires and all of the way up to old appliances and furniture. To give you an idea of how common this is, Kentucky has cleaned up over 22,000 illegal dumps since 1993 (
Illegal Dumping: Large and Small Scale Littering in Rural Kentucky )!

There is, of course, litter from other sources as well. People throwing fast food cups out of their car windows driving down the road, careless hikers discarding of water bottles on the trail and people simply too ignorant or lazy to properly dispose of toilet paper in the wilderness. Not only is this problem unsightly, it’s also harmful to the ecosystem.

Tagging

Example of tagging on a natural arch.
Apex Arch, while not located in the Daniel Boone National Forest, is a dramatic example of the destruction caused by tagging. Photo courtesy of Bill Fultz.

Tagging is a blanket term that I use to describe both rock carving and graffiti. Like litter, this is especially common throughout the Daniel Boone National Forest. For whatever reason, there are people out there that feel the need to “leave their mark” on our most beautiful treasures. Sadly, this behavior both harms the landmarks they tag and is unsightly for the next visitor.

Examples of tagging can be found almost anywhere you look throughout the Daniel Boone National Forest. Almost any well-known overlook (and some not so well-known ones) will almost certainly be filled with carvings. Rock shelters and arches are commonly carved, and spray painted. It’s truly baffling to me how anyone could consider this behavior acceptable, but it happens at a rate that suggests there are a lot of people that don’t see the problem in doing this.

This needs to change!

Improper Camping Habits

There’s a whole lot that we could discuss under this heading! There are plenty of actions some people take when camping that can have a huge, negative impact on our public lands. Camping too close to streams, being careless in disposing of waste, not properly storing food, etc. The one I really want to draw attention to here, however, is camping under rock shelters and arches.

This is a practice that’s actually illegal in the Daniel Boone National Forest. The reason being that it has a negative impact on these areas.

One way in which camping under a rock shelter has a negative impact is by potentially destroying archaeologically significant sites. It was common for various prehistoric and Native American peoples to make use of rock shelters and similar areas for shelter. For example, the Adena Indians frequented various rock shelters throughout the area that is now the Red River Gorge. Camping in these areas increases the chances of potential archaeological evidence being destroyed. That’s all our collective culture being destroyed by the irresponsible behavior of the minority!

An example of an illegal dig in Daniel Boone National Forest.
Besides just camping under rock shelters destroying archaeological artifacts, people also illegally dig for them.

The other problem comes about when people build fires under rock shelters and arches (also illegal in DBNF). These fires weaken the structural integrity of the overhanging rock and leaves an unsightly black residue on the rock.

Working Towards a Solution

The above list is hardly comprehensive. There are plenty of other examples of abuse facing our public lands. These are simply the most common ones that I’ve come across in my many travels through the Daniel Boone National Forest. These are also the abuses that I feel like we can make the most progress towards fixing.

While it may seem like a daunting, impossible to solve problem, I believe that we can all take small actions to have a much larger impact. All of us banding together to make just a small difference can add up to a really big impact. I’d like to quote Britany from The Eleventh Essential:


Every day we can make a difference with the smallest act. Pick up a piece of trash here, a bag of trash there, educate someone on Leave No Trace. There are so many great ways to make a difference.

I also believe that most of this abuse is the result of ignorance and a lack of education rather than people with malicious intent. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely those with malicious intent performing these acts, I just think those people are the minority. If correct, that would suggest that education should go a long way in helping fix this issue in the future. That means that sharing articles like this one and making social media posts can have a big impact, as can correcting people when you see them making mistakes.

When it comes down to it, we can all make a big difference! Pick up trash on your next hike, raise awareness of rock carving on social media, and help educate others on how to follow the Leave No Trace Seven Principles. We may not be able to solve the problem as individuals, but as a collective group we can!

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