I’m a huge proponent of Leave No Trace principles to protect the wilderness environment. I just don’t always know the right way to apply them in the field. On paper, the principles seem black and white. In practice, the gray area looms large, like fog drifting into a valley. Take illegal fire rings, the bane of any backcountry ranger patrolling in the Rawah Wilderness.
Rawah regulations state that camps must be located at least 200 feet away from water or a trail. So any camp fire ring within 200 feet of a lake or creek or trail is considered “illegal” and is removed and the area rehabilitated as best we can. If we come across legal fire rings, we generally leave them in place, although we often clean them up and sometimes downsize them to conform with the Leave No Trace principle of Minimize Campfire Impacts.
One of the ways the Minimize Campfire Impacts principle is explained is “When fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires. Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.” My problem starts in an area where fires are not permitted, but are used nonetheless. In this particular area of the Rawahs, fires are banned above 11,000 feet to protect the fragile lake environment with its few remaining trees. Nevertheless, I have never patrolled this particular section of trail without removing a half-dozen or so illegal fire rings. In my experience, most people building fires here know that they shouldn’t be doing it, but camp fires and camping are so closely tied together in their minds that discovering that other people have had a fire in the area justifies their own behavior. The most common excuse I hear when I talk to people about it is, “Oh, I thought it was allowed because there was a fire ring.”
So, in my mind, the presence of a fire ring in an area where fires are not allowed is asking for trouble. This is just about as black and white as it can be, right? When I find them, I remove them. But, here is the rub. To clean up and rehabilitate an illegal fire ring site, I take the fire-blackened rocks away from the fire ring and try to put them in a locations that will make it difficult for someone to rebuild the fire ring. I thrown them downhill. I pitch them in the middle of a bush. I sometimes throw them in the lake or creek. The point is they are scattered. But, if this is a particularly “good” location for a fire, someone will go around and collect more rocks and rebuild the fire ring. When I make my rounds, I can almost guarantee illegal fire rings in particular locations.
Now, in this particular location there is a large rock with a small cave it in. You look at it and you think to yourself, that is a GREAT place for a fire! It is situated in the middle of a grassy meadow in such a way as to shield the fire builder from the prevailing winds, it keeps everyone out of the rain, and its semi-circular shape is perfect for a small group of hikers or campers to gather around. Naturally, there is a rather large fire ring there when I get to it. What to do?
I can scatter the rocks, but there really is no good place to “hide” them. And, it looks to me like this cave has been used for as long as humans have been traveling in the Rawahs as a gathering place to sit around a fire. Here is my dilemma. Do I do more damage to the environment by scattering the rocks or by leaving them? If I scatter the rocks, surely other rocks in the meadow will be dug up to replace them. The allure of this place for fire, even to me, is too strong to ignore. These new rocks will then be burned, scouring them of algae and moss. I’ll have both new holes in the meadow and more rocks to disperse the next time I am here. On the other hand, leaving the fire ring intact will encourage others to have a fire in this fragile environment where fires are not allowed, but may actually preserve more of the surrounding environment from additional resource damage.
This is a case of rules confronting principles. I believe the rules are proper for protecting this fragile environment. I also believe a strong case can be made that leaving the fire ring intact would be best for the local environment. I am holding mutually exclusive views in my head at once and believe they are both true. Frankly, I’m getting a headache. I really thought this job would be easier than it’s turning out to be.