If you are lucky enough to win the lottery to hike Mt. Whitney – the highest peak in the lower 48 states at 14,505 feet in the Southern Sierra – during the optimum hiking season between May 1 and Nov. 1, you will be given a blue bag when you pick up your permit.
The blue bag is for the No. 2. Even with strictly enforced caps of 160 people a day that can be on the 22.5-mile round-trail with 6,565 feet in elevation feet elevation gain, the rugged high Sierra environment in the Mt. Whitney Zone of which most is above the tree line cannot handle people using the standard shovel when they have to go.
In the five times I’ve hiked Whitney, I’ve had to use the blue bag just once. That said I’ve hiked out with three blue bags – two that people unceremoniously deposited along the trail because they obviously were less than thrilled about not leaving a trace.
The bags have chemicals in them that, once sealed and shaken, do not pose an odor or a sanitary issue. But if left along the trail not only do they not decompose properly but they pose a threat to wildlife and birds that have enough of a challenge to survive without the added issue of dealing with the trash and deposits of 160 people.
Yes, it is kind of gross to use the bag but it is doable. And I wasn’t a big fan on taking a blue bag someone else deposited unceremoniously and carrying it out in my backpack to the trailhead where you can dispose of it, but there is a moral and ethical obligation everyone has who treads into delicate areas of nature not to scar it or do irreparable damage.
My somewhat bizarre love affair with Death Valley and its remote canyons, cross country desert pavement and peaks without trails only heightened my sense of the obligation to leave no trace. You will come across in the middle of nowhere delicate wildflowers or fragile yet hardy small shrubs surviving in a harsh environment where the ground temperatures in summer often soar past 150 degrees and the overnight temperatures in the dead of winter drop below freezing.
It is why anyone who is upset by the individuals who removed the metal monolith from a remote location in the red desert in Utah needs to take a long look at how they view the world.
If you are among those who are earnest in a concern about climate change and how Big Oil or Big Whatever is damaging the environment, you need to not only understand what damage that monolith in Utah did while it was still standing but what you do personally to impact the environment.
It is a given we all need to impact the environment to survive. And none of us are pure, including me or those true hardcore folks who immerse themselves in nature’s wonders.
The goal should be keeping our footprint at a minimum. And certainly we need to respect what nature is up against.
The group of hikers who posted on Instagram how they observed another group take down the monolith and haul it out of its remote location, told the world that was incensed about the removal of “art” that they didn’t stop them because the monolith wreckers did the right thing.
They backed up their point by noting the next day they peered down from a hillside after camping overnight to see more than 70 vehicles parked wantonly in the desert and people hiking miles across desert with no effort to follow each other or watch for what they are crushing just so they could see the notorious monolith for themselves. They also noted a large amount of litter and human waste in the area that previously had been virtually pristine.
Those calling for San Juan County Sheriff Jason Togerson to bring criminal charges not against the “artist” but the culprits who removed the monolith and hauled it off have it backwards.
The installation was made on public lands without a permit! It also had been basically abandoned. Whoever placed it there broke not just the law but the code all desert users must live by not to abuse the delicate environment that they are enjoying. As for it being stolen property even if you can morally get past the point it is an illegal installation, no one has claimed ownership.
Yet more than a few on social media went berserk about the monolith being removed. On more than a few of such postings you can access their previous postings and see that they embrace many of the politically correct climate change movements.
To be clear, it is doubtful that most serious climate change activists would see what was done in Utah as okay in terms of desecrating protected federal land with “art.” But the fact those who embrace any effort that leads to large-scale damage even perhaps unwittingly as the monolith did in attracting hordes to a remote part of the red desert makes their credentials as friends of the environment highly questionable.
The damage to the section of desert can’t be overstated. Literally having hundreds of people and vehicles converging on such a remote and delicate landscape will leave scars for decades if not longer.
Had the “installation” not been removed social media would have kept luring more waves of people to the location to unwittingly inflict lasting damage all so they can post selfies with the monolith.
What the “artist” did in Utah is no different than what another “artist” did back in 2014.
A San Diego woman by the name of Casey Nocket went on a defacing spree at seven national parks and monuments throughout the West including Death Valley, Yosemite, Zion, Crater Lake, and Rocky Mountains. She used nature as her canvas to create acrylic paintings in fairly high-profile spots such as the minuscule summit of Telescope Peak at 11,043 feet overlooking Death Valley. She then shot photos including selfies of her with her vandalism that she perceived as art and posted them on her Instagram account.
Removing her damage was a nightmare. Sandblasting and chemical stripping used to remove paint can cause even more irreplaceable damage to natural features.
Nocket ended up pleading guilty in federal court in Fresno to seven misdemeanors. She was also required to pay restitution to cover part of the cleanup costs.
None of us is without sin when it comes to doing things to live and/or survive that overstep reasonable boundaries and underscore our need to be as good of stewards as we reasonably can when it comes to the environment.
When we venture into national parks, national monuments, and federal land we need to realize we must tread differently than we do in the civilized world.
What we venture into is being preserved for generations for a reason. Not to treat it with the respect it deserves is selfish and shortsighted.
That isn’t likely what an artist would want to do. But in their apparent drive to make a statement they unleashed a torrent of damage on a desert landscape.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Ceres Courier or 209 Multimedia Corporation.