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Reason.com reports that three police officers fined Greg Visscher fifty dollars for picking raspberries in a county park without a permit. No ordnance prohibits park goers from picking berries. The ordnance states that residents are subject to fine if they deface local flora and fauna. Picking berries suddenly counts.

Some time ago I wrote about the outdoor practices of leave no trace. The leave no trace wilderness ethic actually contains a lot of dos and don’ts that have been around for a long time: don’t litter, do build your fire in place that won’t scar the grass, don’t cut live trees, do wash your dishes and dispose of your garbage in environmentally friendly ways.

The disturbing quality of leave no trace principles comes with aggressive enforcement of the idea that humans generally have a negative impact on nature. According to this perspective, people who care little about the wild have mucked up so much natural beauty, the little wilderness that remains must bear no trace of human presence. Even a footprint, a bent twig, or a picked berry is too much. Read the leave no trace literature. You’ll be appalled or disturbed at what you see if you read beyond the common sense stuff.

Here’s an example. A hiker is never supposed to leave the path, for any reason. Let’s say you are hiking a path after a heavy rain, and you come to a huge mudhole: the water is several inches deep, and below that you have several more inches of mud. On either side of the path, you have grass, rocks, and moist soil. If you go around the mudhole, the soles of your shoes will bear down on the grass and soft ground. You will leave a visible impression at the places where you step. What should you do?

Common sense tells you to avoid the mudhole. Leave no trace principles say you do not leave the path. They say you walk through the mudhole. The path is sacrosanct, and so is the ground that surrounds it. The path’s existence is trace enough, and you should never do anything that might create a new one. If you create a new path, where would that stop? Deer and other animals might create new paths, but humans should not do anything that leaves a visible trace of their passing.

Here’s a personal story. I was camping with my family in New Hampshire. Late one night I was in the trees near our campsite to gather some firewood. In the Boy Scouts, where I followed many valid principles in the common sense category, I learned the qualities of good firewood. Dry deadwood that is off the ground is the best. So when I stumbled on a dead tree near our campsite, I thought, “This is a good find.”

The tree was a fairly small conifer: about as high as a basketball hoop, the trunk about three inches in diameter at the base. You can tell a dead tree by three signs, aside from its color: no foliage, twigs easily snap off, and roots do not anchor the tree in the ground. That is, with little trouble you can break the trunk at ground level, where moisture has weakened the wood.

I happily removed the tree and dragged it back to the campsite. Noise carries at night, and the tree removal operation made enough noise to draw two park rangers to our campsite several minutes later. They wanted to see what the hell I was doing. One ranger, a young woman, was so angry she wanted to eject my family from the campsite on the spot. The man, a little older, was a bit more reasonable, but he was also clear that removal of trees, dead or alive, was against park rules.

I didn’t go into detail about why dead trees make good firewood, but I did indicate that taking out a dead tree not only yields good firewood, it is good stewardship of the forest. The rangers gave me to think that campers cannot be trusted to tell the difference between dead trees and live trees. That’s why they have a rule to prohibit removal of any trees. I was not making progress in the argument, and the female ranger repeated we had to get out of there – immediately – at midnight.

At that point I uttered the saving words: “I was an Eagle Scout, and I know the difference between a dead tree and a live one.” I can tell you that if I had not been an Eagle Scout, I think they would have forced my family to pack up in the in the middle of the night, with no refund and no place to sleep. The younger ranger was hopping mad; the older ranger was willing to go along with her. Apparently being an Eagle Scout still wins respect, even with people who, a second before, might regard you as a death-dealing threat to their forest.

That run-in taught me that the leave no trace people are not kidding around. Getting ticketed for picking raspberries illustrates the same point. Citing Scott Jurek for spilling champagne at the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine falls in the same class. People who enforce leave no trace principles regard themselves as custodians of wild spaces. If they perceive that you do not practice their principles, if they regard you as a careless, inexperienced interloper, you are not welcome: not welcome in their group, and not welcome in the wild. If they are in a position to force you out, fine you, or exert social pressure to keep you away, they will.

Humans have brought ruin and degradation to some wild places, beauty and improving husbandry to others. Clear cutting and strip mining are well-known examples of degradation. A recent instance of ruin is the EPA’s dumping three million gallons of orange, heavy-metal laden water into the beautiful Animas River in Colorado via a series of egregious, needless mistakes. Clear examples of husbandry and beauty are the fields of grain that adorn the Great Plains, or the vinyards and orchards in sunny valleys the world over. These large, verdant gardens, with row upon row of healthy plants under cultivation, show humans and nature in harmonious interaction.

I wish we could restore leave no trace to its common-sense period, a time when all of us could feel welcome in the wild. Outdoors men and women would share their knowledge about nature, and care of natural spaces, with young people and others who might not have a lot of experience in the outdoors. Leave no trace communicates a different, forbidding message: do things our way, or you are not welcome here. These are the rules. If you don’t follow them, if you leave any trace whatever of your presence in the outdoors, then stay away. Formally or informally, we will exclude you, because your presence threatens a pristine state.

Nature does not need guardians of this stripe. Nature is happy if children of all ages play in the woods, climb trees, leave footprints, break twigs, turn over rocks, and generally mess things up a bit. Wind, rain, the seasons and natural resilience return things to their original state quickly enough. No one should hesitate to go into the wild because they are unfamiliar with the strict, grim and particular rules of leave no trace. Likewise no one should pause if they are familiar with these principles, but don’t care to abide by rules that go against common sense. Least of all should they refrain from enjoyment of the outdoors because they fear sanction and disapproval from leave-no-trace enforcers, should they violate obsessive rules of purity the enforcers themselves have conceived.

Pick some raspberries. Make yourself at home in the wild, in all the beautiful spaces God and nature have given us. You will leave traces when you do that, and that’s okay.

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