Don't Mess with Texas...or anywhere else for that matter.
Recently, a video caught my eye while I was browsing some YouTube libraries. The video titled, "Government Bans Camping on Public Lands 2021. Why?," is a short piece produced by a full-time RVing couple who blog about their experiences (Tom & Cheri - Enjoy The Journey.Life - RV Living & Full Time Travelers). The couple was looking to boondock camp in an area of Arizona. In the video, the couple showed the terrible impact that visitors, i.e., campers, hikers, etc., are having on that section of Arizona land under the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) care. I’ve not yet boondocked, but thought it might be nice to try sometime. However, in Texas, over 95% of the land is privately owned. So, unlike states like Arizona, there aren’t any opportunities to camp on BLM land here. However, the littering problem isn’t isolated only to BLM land. It’s becoming an enormous problem in all parks and preserves nationwide as more people swarm to these areas for some COVID quarantine relief.
During my own camping and hiking trips, I’ve witnessed a great deal of littering. I’ve seen everything from toilet paper and human excrement right beside a well-worn state park trail to Mylar balloons caught in trees to doggy poop bags piled “caringly” next to park directional signs awaiting pickup by the poop fairies (um...there's no such thing as a poop fairy). Most recently, my husband and I were camping at a Kerrville Schreiner Park in Kerrville, Texas, when we witnessed our camping neighbor empty his porta-potty in the tree line as he was preparing to leave. Our sites were full hookups with sewer. But for whatever reason, our neighbor chose not to hook up. Additionally, the park has a dump station. So there was absolutely NO reason for him to dump his waste in the trees. Sadly, in today’s environment, I didn’t feel safe confronting him. So, I called the office to report it, letting the responsibility for enforcement fall to the proper authorities. However, the camper’s blatant disregard for the park’s rules and the campsite and it’s future inhabitant’s health and well-being astounded us!
Although all instances of littering disturb me, one particular instance stands out in my mind. There’s a very special place in the Davis Mountains of West Texas known as the Davis Mountains Preserve. The 33,000+ acre area is protected by the Nature Conservancy and is only open to visitors for very limited days during specific times of the year. Because of its geological location, it’s a “sky island,” harboring life for rare types of flora and fauna not usually found in a desert area. I’ve been fortunate enough to hike the area only once. It was an amazing experience topping off an equally amazing solo camping trip. Last year, I returned to the area with my husband for a short vacation at the Davis Mountains State Park. On a daytrip, we drove TX 118-N that loops around the Davis Mountains Preserve, stopping at the Lawrence E. Wood Picnic Area just down the road from the preserve entrance and Madera Canyon Trail parking area. Unfortunately, there was plenty of evidence of human presence there. The area was littered with plastic water caps, cigarette butts, and other small pieces of trash, despite waste cans being provided at the site. I noticed old metal bottle caps strewn around, testifying that the littering has been going on for many years and making it seem like an archaeological find. As I walked back towards the fence line bordering the preserve, I saw several areas used as toilets where people had discarded their toilet paper, with the most egregious piece of trash being a purple tampon applicator. It was heartbreaking. Only a creek bed and barbed wire fence separates the parking area from the beautiful preserve. I wondered how many people had trespassed onto the land, leaving their waste behind them as they hiked.
By our very existence, we humans have an impact on our environment. However, humans have a unique consciousness that enables us to understand our impacts and to take action to mitigate them. Unfortunately, that same consciousness often propels us to place our own importance above that of the other creatures that share our planet. I don’t consider myself a radical environmentalist. However, I feel that as a Master Naturalist I've taken a sort of oath to be a good steward of the planet and strive to do my part, no matter how small, to preserve it. As we only have one Earth, I do believe that everyone should do their part to be good-stewards of their space and every little effort counts. I'm not perfectly green, but I never litter. I try to make sense out that senseless act by thinking that it happens because many people are just uneducated and don’t know the impact caused by their actions. The realist in me knows that’s only a part of the reason. Another part is that a lot of people are lazy and don’t care, which makes the fight to deter it so much more difficult.
As I see it, there are two main impacts to this littering activity. First, there’s the obvious ecological impact, on which you can find countless articles, studies, etc. The second is the psychological impact. That one's not so obvious. Imagine, for a moment, that you're looking at the most beautiful flower you've ever seen in your whole life. You're so enthralled by that flower's beauty that you feel a spiritual connection to it. It's truly a feeling of awe, and you really need to feel that at this particular time in your life. Then, imagine that someone comes along and crushes the flower underfoot. In an instant and right before your eyes, it's destroyed. Imagine the anguish you feel. The sense of loss. The anger. When you come upon an area whose natural beauty has been marred by litter what do you feel? Litter affects people psychologically and physiologically. Studies have shown that the effects are cumulative and that living in a littered environment encourages more littering. It takes great effort to break the cycle. But, it's an effort worth making.
I like to think that anyone who hikes or camps is at least somewhat aware of the practice of Leave No Trace (LNT). The LNT movement has been around for over 25 years, and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has a myriad of resources to help educate the public. Although LNT has seven principles, it's not an all-or-nothing action. Every time someone makes an effort to reduce their impact on nature, it makes a positive deposit in the good steward bank account. Little actions add up. When headed out on a trail, I make it a point to pick up at least one piece of trash along the way. I often keep a gallon-sized zip lock bag in my backpack in which I can deposit things I collect along my hike. I then dispose of the items in the trash when I return to camp. Prior to pulling out of a campsite, I do a quick walk around to make sure we haven't left any litter. Many parks have park hosts and other volunteers that work tirelessly in an attempt to keep campsites clean for the next campers. However, I've lost count of the number of times we've pulled into a campsite and found it littered with all kinds of trash. For some reason folks seem to think the firepit is the equivalent of the trash bin.
Littering doesn't just have a negative esthetic effect. It harms wildlife and their habitats as well. Most of us are used to seeing pictures of marine wildlife entangled in plastic waste. According to the Texas Disposal blog, "Plastic litter is the most common killer of animals, and marine animals are the most notably affected. Each year over 100,000 dolphins, fish, whales, turtles, and more drown after becoming entangled in or digesting plastic litter." However, litter in its many forms also affects land-based animals. Here in San Antonio, Texas, cascarones are synonymous with the annual Fiesta and Easter celebrations. Besides the chance of spreading disease to local bird populations from imported contaminated egg shells, the plastic confetti contents inside the egg shells can harm wildlife as well. Animals think it's food scattered on the ground. Since they can't digest it, it often leads to serious illness or even an agonizing death for the unfortunate animal that eats it. In many state parks and natural areas, cascarones are illegal. An emerging problem now is discarded mask litter resulting from the COVID pandemic. On my recent camping trip to Huntsville State Park, I saw a paper mask entangled in the grassy swamp area off the road. Unfortunately, I couldn't safely reach it. So, it remains as a stark reminder of a growing problem. The best way to mitigate your impact on wildlife and your fellow hikers/campers is to simply properly dispose of all of your trash or, if you're on the trail, pack out whatever you brought in.
According to a National Park Service (NPS) Zero Landfill Research project, "Each year, over 100 million pounds of waste are generated in national parks by park operations, visitors, and other sources." And, unfortunately, some of that waste doesn't make it into a trash receptacle. That's just the National Parks in the United States! When you consider the types of litter that exist and the global scale of the littering problem, you might begin to feel overwhelmed. I'm a realist. I know that litter will always be with us. It would be quite easy to think that my efforts are but a tiny dot in a universe of litter. So, why bother? But it's not just someone else's problem. Litter affects everything and everyone, from destroying a landscape's natural beauty to killing wildlife to blocking drainage and wastewater systems. Now, for boondock campers, littering is beginning to seriously limit camping location resources.
You don't have to be a hardcore environmentalist to display a passion for preserving our natural resources. As a matter of fact, most people respond better to positive reinforcement than brute force. So although penalties for littering such as fines and jail time are certainly integral tools that can assist in the efforts to reduce littering, education should be the first course of action. What better way to educate than to lead by example? And, what better time to educate than to begin in childhood? If you have interactions with children, please take the time to educate them on the importance of not littering. There are many ways to get them involved. Many cities have designated dates for city-wide clean up events. The non-profit Keep America Beautiful organization has been coordinating anti-littering, clean up, and recycling activities within many communities since 1953. In Texas, we have a great Adopt-a-Highway program. There are also many online resources. An excellent one for parents and educators is on the Leave No Trace site. The teachable moment might be as simple as pointing out an incident of littering and using that example to start a conversation about littering. Most importantly, we must remember that children mimic what they see. So leading by example is one of the best ways to educate our children and to promote positive action in the future.
As more and more people flock to the outdoors to relieve their COVID lockdown blues, the opportunity for littering increases exponentially. However, that activity also brings us an increased opportunity to educate others about the negative effects of littering... a chance to change a mindset. As I think back to my childhood days, I'm reminded of Woodsy Owls' message: "Give a Hoot! Don't Pollute!"