The origins of the AMC caretaker program lie in the ‘backpacking
boom’ of the 1960s, when people en masse flocked to backcountry areas. Our AMC
shelters, most of which had existed since the early 1900s without incident,
were at the epicenter of this use. Shelters (the concept of a ‘campsite’ was
relatively new following the advent of lightweight backpacking equipment
post-war) became areas known for overflowing trash pits, improper human waste
disposal, and trees decimated up to a quarter mile in radius as hikers
scrounged for firewood.
In 1970 AMC started the pilot caretaker program at Liberty
Springs, and the results were incredible. The impact of the caretaker program
was discovered to be twofold: hands-on stewardship and rehabilitation of the
resource, but also education of backcountry visitors on what they could do to
be their own stewards. Or, in the words of that first Liberty Springs
“The role of the caretaker is a central one. Although he
works on trails, transplants trees, and assigns tentsites, his primary job is
education. Very few people who hike in the backcountry consciously seek to
destroy the environment, but often, carelessly and thoughtlessly, they do…With
a caretaker at the area, however, hikers can be reminded of their role in
preserving the environment.”
While the nuances of the way we explain the caretaker
program have advanced in the forty plus years since that first caretaker at
Liberty, the core of what we do has stayed the same: caretakers operate in that
nexus between people and wilderness, between hikers and the natural resource.
That vital role became apparent in the wake of the
government shutdown, when AMC was ordered to close our backcountry campsites in
the White Mountain National Forest. This closure order meant that our sites
were unstaffed during Columbus Day weekend, one of the busiest weekends of the
entire summer. One of the highest-volume nights in recent record for Guyot
campsite was on a Columbus Day Saturday, with 92 people (2009). With good
weather on Columbus Day weekend 2013, the crowds came again.
Without a caretaker presence, many of the same habits
expressed themselves. Fire rings sprung up at half of Liberty’s tent platforms.
Campers placed themselves improperly throughout sites, blocking access to water
(at Guyot) and trampling vegetation (at Garfield). One visitor was stopped (by
a Good Samaritan) from burying their leftover food and trash. Tents sprawled
along the Bondcliff Trail and into drainage ditches, as there was no caretaker
to assist with the complicated arrangement of packing 80 plus people into tiny
Guyot. In the long term, these habits would amount again to the over-use of the
1960s, with incredible lasting resource damage.
|One of six Liberty Springs illegal fire-rings created during Columbus Day weekend, this one large enough to fit a 50 pound dog|
A lot of what transpired could have been avoided, as most of
it was lack of information or direction about the correct thing to do. Or, in
the words of a former caretaker who witnessed firsthand much of the Columbus
Day crowds, ‘People don’t know the protocol. People see the sign, sometimes
know what it means, but they don’t know how to apply it.’ The need for
education and gentle guidance, the original justification for the caretaker
program in 1970, continues to be relevant and necessary in 2013.
Labels: Backcountry Campsites Projects, Backcountry Caretaker