Taking care of the outdoors seems like such a fundamental concept these days it’s hard to believe that not so long ago tossing trash out of a car window was a common practice.
Over the years, public education campaigns — from “Keep America Beautiful” to “Leave No Trace” — have clearly changed attitudes and behaviors. Yet, there are signs that respecting our environment isn’t second nature to everyone.
Case in point: During a project called Packing It Out, two men (including Lakeville native Paul Twedt) last year picked up 720 pounds of garbage from the Pacific Coast Trail during a thru-hike — after they hauled 1,100 pounds of junk off the Appalachian Trail in 2015.
So trash is a problem on hiking trails on the coasts. We’re better in Minnesota, though, right? Maybe. But we aren’t perfect.
While it’s difficult to quantify the problem here, it does exist, according to those who manage, maintain and use trails and parks (both under state jurisdiction and overseen by other organizations).
The good news is that most Minnesotans follow the rules. The bad news is some don’t — often leaving those who do to clean up after the miscreants.
At Lake Maria State Park near Monticello, for example: “Eighty percent of campers and cabin users are excellent examples of visitors who follow the Leave No Trace ethic,” park manager Tamara Simonich said. “Fifteen percent are not intentionally being careless, but they might burn garbage instead of hauling it out, or not thoroughly check their campsite before leaving. That means 5 percent who are leaving large amounts of trash behind, carving on picnic tables or engaging in other kinds of bad behavior.”
Peter Hark, operations manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said trash is not a “real prevalent problem” in the parks and trails he oversees. Still, he explained, “there are people not using garbage cans when they should.”
Nicole Halgrimson of St. Paul, a frequent visitor to Fort Snelling State Park, said she often takes it upon herself to do some cleanup while she hikes. “I understand that some of the litter I see is being carried into the park by the Mississippi River, but during a recent trip, I stopped counting after I filled 12 plastic bags with trash in roughly five hours. I had three baby diapers, countless bags of dog poop, and a lot of other stuff.”
On the Superior Hiking Trail, which runs more than 300 miles from near Jay Cooke State Park in Carlton, Minn., to the Canadian border and includes 94 campsites, the amount of litter a hiker or backpacker might encounter depends on where they are.
Not surprisingly, sections that see the most use “have the greatest chance of misuse,” said Jo Swanson, who coordinates the work of more than 300 volunteers for the Superior Hiking Trail Association.
An increase in Superior trail use in recent years has meant more trash, which the volunteers haul out. “My dad and I maintain the furthest north campsite on the trail,” said volunteer Tony Yarusso of Mahtomedi. “When we started it hardly got any use at all, then there was a major uptick, possibly related to the ‘Wild’ and ‘Into the Woods’ films. That brought much more trash.”
Because more newcomers are using the trail, the trail association is beefing up communication of trail rules, including helping people better understand their role in protecting the trail and surrounding environment, something that Swanson said “will help first-time users understand what is expected of them, and will be a gentle reminder to our returning visitors.”
Common sense is best
The DNR’s Hark also surmised that newer users of the parks and trails may contribute more than their share to trash issues. “Most Minnesota park users grew up using our facilities, many visit a lot and they don’t want to see garbage laying around,” Hark said. “But folks who are less-frequent visitors may not always understand the importance of cleanup or what is expected.”
While some state parks have individual efforts, the DNR does not have a system-wide program to reduce littering, Hark said. “We most often rely on low-key enforcement,” he explained. “We have general rules and policies in place, and when park staff sees someone not following the rules, they will talk to them.”
Rules and their enforcement can be helpful, but in the end it really comes down to using common sense, said Matthew Davis, regional trail coordinator for an association that manages the North Country Trail. The trail courses through Minnesota and six other states.
“All users should simply strive to leave a trail just as good if not better than they found it,” Davis said. “If every user took that approach, all of our trails would be in fantastic shape.”
“Always pack out what you pack in,” said Nick Millette of East Bethel, who makes a point of picking up trash as he hikes and camps. “If you are a wilderness camper, pack a small trash bag in your food container, and as you use items, place them in the trash bag to carry out with you.”
Still, no matter how much you educate people, said Shawn Payton of Iron River, Wis., another Superior trail volunteer, it’s unlikely that those who produce garbage will be always responsible: “It’s going to simply be up to us who care to clean up the messes left by those who don’t.”
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.