Seemingly Innocent Things That Are Actually Bad for National Parks
It’s hard to write this article without just lamenting about how people “should” behave. Our goal is to be less like the guy nobody invited to the party who judges everyone’s beer choices, and more like the guy who gives you a water at the right time so you can day drink longer.
Mostly, it’s just trends we’ve noticed that clearly bug the hell out of everyone except the person who is doing it.
1) Playing Music from a Speaker Is Killing The Forest Around You In a recent trip to Yosemite, in two separate hikes around the valley, we encountered more than half a dozen people playing loud music from a speaker inside their backpacks. I appreciate the effort to have higher quality sound a smartphone, but I’m not sure which is louder: the pill speakers or the sound of every other hiker’s eyes rolling as high as they can. Even on busy trails, most hikers are trying to find some level of escape,but it's more than that. Loud man-made noises affect predators’ ability to hunt, and, perhaps more significantly, it changes behavior of birds and small mammals that many trees rely on to plant their seeds. So basically, the jambox in your backpack is slowly killing the sustainability of the park’s trees.
2) Talking too Loudly Is Doing The Same This is not a way for us to say, “Don’t Talk” or “Don’t have fun.” Yelling even has its place in warding off bears when they get too close. Hiking is really just a fancy mixture of walking, talking, and photography, but when hikers start yelling constantly (say, a group of hikers all trying to talk over one another), that's when problems you don’t even notice start to occur. Human omnipresence is a relatively new phenomenon, evolutionarily speaking, which means our voices can have the same negative effects as loud music or engine noise. Being aware of your group’s volume will help minimize a footprint most folks don’t even know they’re leaving.
3) Meadows are Fragile Ecosystems That Die When Walked On It’s easy to understand why people may not think of walking around wild grasses or flowers to be a problem. We do it all the time in our city parks--that’s how they’re designed. Our national parks, on the other hand, are meant to stay as wilderness, which leaves them far more susceptible to inadvertent damage. In spring 2017, Southern California experienced an unprecedented super bloom following record rainfall during the winter months. Visitors rushed to go see it. Photos of people sitting amongst the poppies went viral. Soon, so many visitors were stepping off the path for their photos that entire meadows were trampled to death under human feet. The Park Service was forced to close the access roads to prevent any further damage. At Mount Rainier, wildflower meadows, once crushed, can take decades to fully recover. Desert ecosystems are even more fragile; a single step off the path is capable of killing centuries of microscopic plant growth.
4) Building Cairns (Those Cute Rock Piles) Could be Really Dangerous You know those little rock piles of single stones piled atop one another? They look all zen-like and make for a cool focal point in your photos, right? There’s just one problem: They’re actually used as trail-markers in desert and alpine landscapes. Building one could send hikers off in a wayward direction, where, if they were to be injured or run out of water, they’re less likely to be found. Rangers in Death Valley are constantly knocking down errant cairns to help keep hikers safe.
5) Taking A “Shortcut” of Any Kind Erodes Established Trails
At some point, you will be on a trail that you will feel makes no sense: a switchback will take you 100 feet out of your way, a trail will curve around when going straight would be faster, or a “better” view off the trail before the official vista point. While it make seem innocuous enough, every footstep off the trail damages the plant life whose roots secure the earth in place. Heavy rains and spring snow melts do the rest. For cliff edges and overlooks, it’s possible that the ground could give way beneath you. Like it did for the guy who recently took a 1000 ft plunge into Crater Lake. That guy survived, but a 20-year-old who fell only 70 feet a couple months later did not.