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One Utah Park Ranger On The Impact of 'Microtrash' And How To 'Leave No Trace' At National Parks

Courtesy of Arches National Park
A Missoula Boy Scout Troop collected 7 lbs of micro trash at Arches National Park.

What do poor planning, spilling micro-trash, and rock collecting have in common? It’s all behavior to avoid if you’re visiting any of the region's National Parks, whether Mesa Verde near Cortez or Arches and Canyonlands near Moab. KZMU’s Serah Mead recently spoke with a park ranger who breaks down seven principles she says will ensure recreationists leave no trace during their visit.



KZMU: Moab local Karen Garthwait considers herself a lifelong volunteer, beginning at age three stuffing envelopes with her mom for the American Heart Association. Her dedication to public service now includes her 17 years of service to the national parks, first as a Ranger at Arches and now as an employee of both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks overseeing interpretive media and assisting with their volunteer program. Karen led a litter clean up service project at Sand Dune Arch shortly before Earth Day, which yielded a surprising seven pounds of trash, made up mostly of the small stuff.

KAREN GARTHWAIT: Yeah, you know, most of it is what we would call ‘micro trash.’ So the stuff you might not even notice. In fact, our volunteers will often say that when they come up they’re like, ‘is there anything?’ because they're not seeing like, a tire sticking out of a bush. We don't see that behavior at Arches and Canyonlands. We see cigarette butts, bottle caps, gum, the little piece of plastic that comes off when you open that granola bar. When you think of it like that seven pounds really does start getting kind of impressive.

KZMU: In light of Earth Day and the recent displays of vandalism on ancient rock art at Sunshine Wall near Arches National Park and at Birthing Rock near Moab, I asked Karen about ways to balance conservation around impact. I was curious about what was on the other side of the spectrum of the big picture efforts that are being made to minimize human impact on wildlands.

GARTHWAIT: There is something that I definitely talk about with all of our volunteer groups that wasn't a part of my childhood. And that's this notion of ‘Leave No Trace.’ That has entered the vernacular, the common understanding. Not everybody is familiar with it. That's why it's still important to educate about. In fact, right now, we are seeing, I believe, a big upswell in brand new park visitors and perhaps very unaware of concepts like Leave No Trace and what they mean. And it doesn't just mean litter, right? It is associated with a whole suite of behaviors that get you to think about the impact that you're having. Not just on the land, but also on each other. Principle number one is plan ahead and prepare. That might not sound like a Leave No Trace principle until you think about what happens when you don't plan properly and you have to get rescued. Rescues cause impacts. Because if a human life is at stake, you’re going to cut corners on the trail, you're going to do things that might leave a mark because there's a human life. The second one is walking on durable surfaces. So here everybody knows about biological soil crust, or they should. So staying on rock staying on loose sand were living things aren't trying to survive. Number three is dispose of waste properly. Number four is leave what you find. Yes, Arches has lots of rocks. But if everyone took one home, we'd have a lot less. Or we'd be like the poor case of Fossil Cycad National Monument, which no longer exists because people came along and stole all the fossil cycads. Number five is to maintain your campfire or not promote wildfire, right? And number six is respecting wildlife, which is related to trash in a big way in my mind, because animals don't know the difference between the peanut butter or the plastic bag the peanut butter sandwich came in. And can do things like consume plastics, or bring a rotting cigarette butt back into their burrow because it's soft, but just think about all those toxins. It can get pretty ugly. Number seven is respecting other visitors on the trail. So acknowledging that you have a sound impact, especially if you're in Canyon Country because echoes are a thing.

KZMU: Leave No Trace principles do seem to be having a positive impact within the local National Parks. Karen described another litter clean up along Hwy 191 in Moab between Lion’s Park and My Place Hotel in which she and several volunteers picked up a whopping 75 pounds of trash: a stark contrast to the clean-up at Sand Dune Arch parking lot. But even with projects like these, managing our impact on this earth can feel daunting at times. Here’s some advice from Ranger Karen.

GARTHWAIT: We’re all doing the best we can and making the best choices that we can make. And sometimes just hearing about somebody else doing a litter pickup, if that inspires you to pick up two pieces of something the next time you're - I don't know - walking across the parking lot at City Market. Any little thing that we can do to help brighten up the space that we share, But just, you know, taking those little moments if you can, it can be really empowering and help combat the malaise that can grow from contemplating those impacts.

KZMU: Well, thank you Ranger Karen.

KAREN GARTHWAIT: Alright, thanks again.

KZMU and KZJD are members of the Rocky Mountain Community Radio Coalition.

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