Minding Mother Nature 

A forest ranger tells us how we can be better wilderness tourists

In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt designated 1,947,520 acres in central Idaho as the Sawtooth Forest Reserve. The area is now known as the Sawtooth National Forest, and in 1972, Congress set aside 756,000 acres within the forest as the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). Since the introduction of Rep. Mike Simpson's HR 3603, titled the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA), the SNRA has been the hotly debated center in an environmental tug-of-war that has split even conservation groups into opposing camps.

Politics aside, the SNRA is one of Idaho's most popular wilderness destinations for both residents and out-of-state tourists, and while the ultimate fate of the SNRA has yet to be determined in the political arena, the comings and goings of tourists each year take their toll on the forest. Boise Weekly spoke with Dan Dusic, a ranger in the Sawtooth National Forest's SNRA to ask about human impact on the area and how to be responsible wilderness tourists.

BW: What do you do as a forest ranger?

DD: I'm the Wellness Education Coordinator. And as part of my job, I do have regular ranger duties where I go into the backcountry and make contacts with people who are in the area. But my contacts are all educational contacts. I don't write tickets per se, but instead, I teach people how to do things right. As the education coordinator, I do the education programs for people in our backcountry and those last about an hour. We do it for church groups, Boy Scouts—any large group that enters the wilderness—and we just teach people about Leave No Trace.

About how many groups go through the program each year?

Last year we had close to 50 groups, which is about 800 total people. This year's numbers are down a little bit. We've also given two trainers' courses, which are overnight backpacking trips. It's a two-day overnight Leave No Trace trainers' course and it's really intensive. After that the people who take those classes are able to teach the same awareness workshops we give to everyone who comes to the wilderness.

Can you talk about the Leave No Trace program?

It's non-profit organization that started 11 years ago. It was started by the Forest Service and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and it's more of a wilderness awareness program than a set of rules. Leave No Trace tries to instill the general ethic in people to follow these rules.

What's the most common mistake you see visitors making in terms of leaving an impact?

I think there are two things in particular. One is the campfire. People in the wilderness area build campfire rings, and they're not allowed to. We break down many campfire rings. And putting trash in campfire rings is a big thing that people like to do that they shouldn't. Another thing is disposing of human waste properly. We find toilet paper and all sorts of things that are unpleasant that the rangers have to deal with.

So for the record, how should people deal with that?

We tell people to go 200 feet away from any water and trails. Then dig a hole six to eight inches deep. When you're done, cover it up to make it look like you've never been there and then pack out your toilet paper with you in a Ziplock bag.

How many of the fires you're dealing with now are human caused? Or are they mostly fires ignited by lightning?

It's a little bit of both. We definitely have lightning-caused fires, but we also have fires that have been caused by people leaving campfires unattended and they burn into a tree root or things like that.

How does Leave No Trace change seasonally? Are there different guidelines for winter?

Winter camping is a whole other realm, and most people who come up in the winter don't camp. They use the hut system, but there's definitely a whole different set of guidelines for people to follow. Like with human waste, for example, a lot of times, you just have to pack it out because there's just no way to dig.

What about snowmobilers or other winter activities that may impact the environment?

Snowmobilers obviously can't enter the wilderness area but the main thing is to stay on designated trails and not to go past boundaries and respect private property.

Are you expecting many visitors for Labor Day weekend?

Well, between the smoke from the fires and the weather, it might not be as busy. The Iron Creek is one of our most popular trailheads and it's currently closed, so we'll see, it might not be busy or it'll just be busier in other areas that aren't traditionally busy.

Any guidelines for people who are heading up that weekend?

Definitely call the ranger station and get the current information on where you're going. Also, we have group size limits. People will come and they'll have 14 people and they'll want to go into the wilderness, which they can't do. So knowing the regulations is a pretty big thing and for any large group, we'll give education programs to them for free. We'll go to trailheads or even campsites, where ever we are needed. But contacting the ranger well in advance, like two weeks ahead of time, is always best.

For more information on Leave No Trace visit www.lnt.org. For more information on wilderness education classes offered by the SNRA, call the ranger station at 208-774-3000.

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