Leave No Trace: Can We Ever Enjoy the Wilderness Without Destroying It?
Todd Robert Petersen on the Impossible Balancing of Preservation, Leisure, and Weirdness
From a helicopter flying over a remote canyon in southeast Utah, a group of wildlife biologists spotted a curious inorganic shape on the ground. They set down and discovered a polished metal monolith three meters tall. This discovery sparked an internet conflagration. Was it the work of aliens? Of artists? Maybe both. This discovery was cool and fun, a great diversion during those bleak days after the election and the late-fall Covid surge.
Talk of the monolith kindled the imagination, causing joy in the Bureau of Land Management, who issued the following statement in response to the discovery: “Although we can’t comment on active investigations, the Bureau of Land Management would like to remind public land visitors that using, occupying, or developing the public lands or their resources without… required authorization is illegal, no matter what planet you are from.”
People scrying publicly available satellite imagery learned that the monolith had been in that side canyon for a long time. It had taken four years to discover it, which shows just how vast this part of the world is. A friend and I immediately discussed a trip to find it. We both live in Southern Utah, and we were hoping to use our proximity to beat the madding crowds that would inevitably descend on that place. Reader, they swarmed it.
This is a familiar tale around here. For a long time, people hoarded their knowledge of remarkable places. You had to earn people’s trust to get directions, and even then, there was a bit of a sense that one must earn their access. These are ideas I’d been working for a number of years in a novel about antiquities theft on the Utah-Arizona border. The plot for that book draws much of its energy from the exploration of a question: what happens when a lifetime of secret personal knowledge of remarkable places is stolen and used to earn a quick buck? The story of the monolith attracted me because it felt like another perfect example of the day-to-day weirdness of the desert southwest that I like to write about.
I watched as the internet revelry transformed this incredible, quirky curiosity into another roadside attraction. Its gravity was irresistible. The gathering attention was palpable, and I started second-guessing the trip because I didn’t want to be part of the throngs out there. During my hesitations, we learned the monolith had vanished. It hadn’t been pulled up into the belly of a UFO, but it was dismantled by some monkeywrenchers who shouted, “Leave no trace!” as they wheeled the pieces off. The great irony of this gesture was the fact that they left something behind: a triangular end cap and a matching hole cut into the red rock.What happens when a lifetime of secret personal knowledge of remarkable places is stolen and used to earn a quick buck?
“Leave No Trace” is not neutral language. It’s the name of an entire set of ethical principles that govern how we should comport ourselves in the world. These ideas grew from the concern that our public lands were attracting more and more people, and their impact was becoming increasingly difficult to manage, degrading the very thing people came to see. Leave no trace ideals emerged in the 1980s as a group of coherent principles that could be taught and shared. The phrase itself appears to have entered into usage in the mid-1920s with Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop:
Just as it was the white man’s way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark of his sojourn), it was the Indian’s way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through water, or birds through the air. (emphasis mine)
It’s hard to tell if Cather’s observation here was observed or imagined, but the language resonated with the federal bureaucrats and the Sierra Club before finding common use in the development of the Leave No Trace movement.
Cather’s observation is more important because it defines a colonial way of treating the land, marked by a sense of entitlement, ownership, control, and dominion, distinct from an Indigenous perspective featuring harmony instead of hierarchies.
The guys who carted off the monolith did it as a performance and a protest against the visitor impact this strange attraction brought to this remote canyon. The main character of my crime novel Picnic in the Ruins is an anthropology graduate student working on a federal grant to explore tourist impacts on cultural sites in Southern Utah. I wrote several extended scenes in which the characters talk through the impact of social media attention on sensitive cultural sites, and the merits of bringing these sites under federal protection. Their conversations were in response to criminal activity, first involving the blue-collar theft of Native artifacts but leading to the white-collar theft of energy-rich land set aside for its natural, historical, cultural, and sacred value.
Preservation is a tricky thing in the novel, and in real life. We preserve these places so people can enjoy them, but the protection turns them into attractions, and the traffic creates damage, and the damage has to be remedied before these are lost forever. Often our interventions come too late. Also our preservation of land is often based on some fabricated idea of pristine wilderness, stripped of its people, untouched. There is a darkness to that vision that often goes unquestioned.
The metal monolith and the sad story that followed makes a strong case for the power of anonymity. The artwork itself was illegal, even though it was a delight. And it shows the weakness of regulation as a way to preserve wild places. A former chief of the US Forest Service said that wilderness management is “80 to 90 percent education and information and ten percent regulation.” Parks and public lands were built around the idea that education would be the key to preservation. In 1929 a brochure released by a national Parks advocacy group recommended “a suitable education program be developed, using the natural features of the parks as instructional material. The National Park Service should inform the public concerning park aims and emphasize the necessity of caring for irreplaceable objects of natural and scientific interest.” Despite their best efforts, within a few years, the Sequoia National Park Superintendent, John R. White recognized that there was “a natural and steady pressure to place amusement and entertainment above other requirements.”
You can feel the way parks and public lands are pulled in two directions, like a wishbone. They needed to teach the American people how to enjoy the wilderness without destroying it. They need to teach them to leave no trace. So, parks became not just a showcase of awesome landscape and cultural resources. They became information delivery systems, like museums, world fairs, exhibitions, tours, and TED talks—a kind of edutainment on a massive scale. In short, parks and public lands became Trojan horses, which is a problematic term, but it’s a starting point.
I became fascinated by all this, not because of the people who might be taught to be fine and dedicated stewards. Those aren’t interesting stories. Allan Gurganus once said, “Fiction is about people in trouble, because people are always in trouble.” I was interested in that ten percent of people for whom education wouldn’t work. And really, for the one percent for whom neither education nor regulation would work, people who, like the man who recently pled guilty of digging up parts of Yellowstone looking for buried treasure, really had their hearts set on lawlessness.
These people’s relationship to the land and the cultural sites that receive federal protection fit squarely into the leave no trace model Willa Cather talks about. It is the apex of colonialist thinking to consider the land as having value for the resources that can be extracted from it. Cather isn’t the only one. Writing about the issues of the natural world is no new thing. Thumb through an anthology of nature writing, and you’ll see the names: John Muir, Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, Mary Austin, Ellen Meloy, Wendell Berry. Native writers such as Vine Deloria, Jr., Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, Linda Hogan, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Luci Tapahanso, and others have also written about land, stewardship, and responsibility. Though they write from different perspectives, they often preach to the same choirs.Preservation is a tricky thing in the novel, and in real life. We preserve these places so people can enjoy them, but the protection turns them into attraction.
What if, instead of approaching this from the perspective of a nature writer, I leaned into the criminal dimension, not just a murder in a park story, but something else. Crime stories are interesting to me because they use a crime to attract our attention. While we are caught up in the gruesome details, they allow important, sometimes profoundly philosophical, ideas to hitch a ride. Think about Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables, Chinatown, or The Big Lebowski. These stories are gateway drugs to bigger ideas. Sara Gran’s City of the Dead is a meditation on the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. Tommy Orange’s There, There uses a crime narrative to ask us to think about the lives of urban Native American people. Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians is another fantastic transformation of a crime story, which is also a slasher, asking us to consider the cost of violating tradition.
But the term Trojan horse troubled me. The Greeks used the Trojan horse to deceive an enemy. It purported to be one thing when it was really an attack. Though the term Trojan horse is used to describe how marketers can breach the cynicism of consumers and how computer software allows hackers to enter computer systems, I think there is a better metaphor for what we try to do when we are teaching or making art.
A biologist friend offered another way to think about it. She told me that flowers have a mutually beneficial arrangement with pollinators. The flowers put on a good show. There’s lots of color and spectacle, pistils and stamens for everybody. But it seems so indirect, right? The flower just wants to get it on with other flowers. The bees aren’t interested in flower genetics; they are there for the delicious nectar. This arrangement is called mutualism, and it seems like this is really what’s going on when we use a park to get people thinking about the importance of wilderness and the natural world or when we use a crime novel to talk about crucial issues of appropriation and antiquities theft in America. It’s also a little bit like the technique my wife uses when she slips kale into my smoothie.
The monolith showed us all how powerful delight can be, and I think it’s wise to take note. The guys who hauled it off could have used that platform to do something more than holler “leave no trace” into the night. They had the perfect opportunity to channel millions of sets of eyes into a discussion of how we impact the land and the effect of social media on fragile ecosystems. And in the end, they didn’t even follow their own clarion call. After they hauled the pieces away, one triangular end piece was left behind.
Picnic in the Ruins by Todd Robert Petersen is available now via Counterpoint LLC.