The Pacific Crest Trail traverses some of the most remote and awe inspiring landscapes in the American West. In recent years, it has become a popular avenue for exploration. People wanting to see and experience these landscapes often access the backcountry via the PCT. Much of the country they come to is wilderness. About half of the PCT passes through federally protected wilderness.
But some sections of the PCT – including some of the more popular wilderness areas – are experiencing intense pressure associated with increased use. With this in mind, some of the PCTA staff set aside a week in late August to take part in a Visitor Use Impact Training.
The idea for the class came up at a staff gathering last fall during a discussion regarding increased use and highly impacted areas on the PCT. The question of who would lead the visitor use impact training was a simple one, given the PCTA Trail Operations staff connections to Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment. One of the school’s adjunct professors, Dr. Jeff Marion, is a recreation ecologist based in Blacksburg, Virginia, who splits his time between the U.S. Geological Survey and Virginia Tech. For more than 30 years, Dr. Marion has studied the effects of human recreation on some of the country’s most spectacular wild places, from the Boundary Waters to Zion and the Appalachian Trail to the Pacific Crest Trail. As a result of thousands of hours in the field, Dr. Marion has been able to consult with federal land managers who are confronted with challenging management issues associated with visitation.
One such high use area that the PCT passes through is the Lake Tahoe Basin. Public lands surrounding Lake Tahoe see millions of visitors each year and the PCT is just one of the popular access points. Our partners from the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit hosted our training at their supervisor’s office conference room in South Lake Tahoe, which gave us easy access to the PCT. Participants included PCTA Trail Operations staff members, PCTA Trail Information Specialist Jack Haskel, Forest Service PCT Program Manager Beth Boyst, LTBMU Wilderness Manager Chris Engelhardt, Yosemite NP Visitor Use Impact Monitoring Coordinator Heather Huppe, and the team of wilderness rangers assigned to the nearby Desolation Wilderness. We spent our first day and a half in the classroom learning about some of Dr. Marion’s case studies and findings as well as discussing the issues confronting the PCT and nearby wilderness areas.
On Wednesday, we hiked the PCT from Carson Pass to Meiss Meadows and back. And on Thursday, 12 (wilderness size limit) of us spent the day on the PCT hiking into Lake Aloha in the Desolation Wilderness. Both days allowed us to see real-world examples of visitor use impacts on the PCT as well as the popular camping sites in these areas. Backcountry campsite management, particularly in popular wilderness areas, can be challenging. Wilderness areas are managed to minimize the impacts of human development and to allow visitors the freedom to explore. But, some areas of the PCT and the wilderness areas it passes through are experiencing very high use. Consequently, user-created campsites are appearing directly on or next to the PCT and often very close to sensitive water sources. And with campsites comes human waste, which is not only unsightly when improperly buried but can also become a health concern. The challenge is to manage the PCT in such a way that trail users are encouraged, through education and trail design, to camp in the most appropriate locations.
As we walked the PCT with Dr. Marion, many teachable moments presented themselves and discussions ensued. Where there was an obvious tent pad directly next to the trail and very close to a creek crossing, perhaps hikers could be encouraged to use the flat areas in the nearby stand of timber. A durable site in a small stand of trees constrained by thick vegetation seemed to be a viable site that hikers should be encouraged to keep using. And surrounding the high alpine lake where campsites were proliferating and difficult to contain, discussions centered around the pros and cons of established campsites. These are just a few examples of the difficult management decisions PCTA and our agency partners face.
PCTA and our agency partners certainly have work to do. But it became clear that there is no easy answer to many of these issues. There are a variety of techniques and strategies that managers can use to minimize human impacts; both on the land and the experiences of fellow trail users.
We spent the final morning of the training back in the classroom debriefing the week’s discussions. PCTA staff will continue to work with our local agency partners to address visitor use impact issues.
We’ve all seen highly damaged areas in the wilderness and wonder how to minimize human impact on the landscape, especially inside wilderness areas. We are thinking about these broad issues and learning about the many ways to address them. The conversations are as fascinating as they are complicated. What we do, or not do about this issue long term, is the challenge.
This we know: it’s important that trail users practice Leave No Trace ethics while in the backcountry and are aware of local agency regulations. Minimizing our footprint on the landscape will make the use of the PCT and the country it passes through more enjoyable for all of us.
Beyond personally adopting and spreading the message of Leave No Trace, you can get involved in mitigating people’s impact on the PCT by signing up to volunteer.