Practice Desert Etiquette While You Hit Refresh
By Phil Clark
Southern Utah has been discovered. People from the world over are coming for the spectacular natural beauty. While the high desert of southern Utah and the rest of the Colorado Plateau might seem to be tough as rock, strong and resilient, often it is actually extremely fragile. When the natural beauty is damaged, it’s damaged forever, since it takes so long to recover, if it recovers at all. “Leave No Trace” principles and “The Hiker’s Code” on Utah.com offers guidance to people who might not be sure what to do in the wilds of southern Utah. If in doubt, people should ask themselves, “would it be OK to do this in my living room or yard?” While hiking a trail or driving on a road it is important to stay on that trail or road. Often there are no ‘trails,’ but rather routes, especially in canyons. The sandy surface of the desert is often populated by organisms that create an extremely fragile darker colored crust that is actually alive and takes a really long time to grow, called “cryptobiotic soil.” It is amazingly fragile and should be avoided by following drainages and walking on solid surfaces instead. When on a trail or in a canyon with other people, remember that downhill hikers yield to uphill. With more visitors, comes more poop and trash. Many places have no restrooms and more often land managers are requiring visitors to pack everything out, including human waste. If you need to ‘go’ in the desert, don’t leave the paper behind. The white ‘flowers’ last a long time and won’t decompose in this dry climate. Experienced hikers bring a plastic re-sealable bag to store trash and other waste for later disposal. Public lands employees have enough to do without having to pick up after everyone else. Many people like to have a campfire. While a fire is fun and romantic, usually it is only really a necessity if it is cold. Consider not building a fire and cooking on a propane stove instead and enjoying the beautiful night sky. Consider a fire pan or using an existing fire ring. In many places in southern Utah, including The Wave and Coyote Buttes areas, there are delicate stone fins sticking out between softer layers of sandstone. Even though made of stone, fins are very fragile and delicate. It is best to take plenty of pictures and don’t touch the fins, since even just touching them can cause them to collapse. With the higher visitation seems to be an increase in incidents of graffiti. Most people know that it’s not OK to scratch initials or other markings on the rock, but some still have the urge to do it. It’s illegal, especially if the scratching is done at an ancient Native American or other historic location. The ancients’ work does not need to be ‘improved’ by scratching the markings up to make them more visible. There is never any reason to shoot them with a gun, either. Other visitors seem to think it’s fun to slap their muddy hands or draw designs on the walls. “The next flash flood will wash them away,” they say. Actually, for the last several years southern Utah has been in a drought and flooding hasn’t happened as often and muddy prints last a long time. Some visitors stack rocks. Rock stacks for the purpose of marking a trail are called ‘cairns.’ Cairns are used to help navigate a route by placing them in visible locations, at a distance. A hiker moves from one towards another. Stacking rocks for any other reason does not improve the beauty of the landscape and is an unwelcome intrusion. Stacking rocks in a canyon where there is only one obvious path down the canyon, is unnecessary. Why not spend the time taking pictures? Picking wildflowers, while fun and romantic to do, isn’t a good idea either. With so many more people visiting southern Utah, if each one of those folks picked a flower or two, there would soon be few left for others to appreciate and even fewer seeds for another year. Some years there are few flowers at all due to the prolonged drought. There are many interesting rocks in southern Utah – different colors and different shapes. Consider taking a photo instead of a souvenir that will probably end up gathering dust or be forgotten entirely. Remember that it is better to do without that ‘memento’ so others will enjoy it another time. Why not leave it alone and let others enjoy it? These are just a few examples of how to respect the beauty of southern Utah. For many, southern Utah is “God’s Country,” a sort of natural ‘cathedral.’ If we all are mindful of the basic principles of the “Hiker’s Code,” “Leave No Trace” and “Take nothing but pictures,” when we are all hiking and camping, we can keep these beautiful lands intact for our children and their children.