Leave No Trace Also Means Your Food

Those orange peels and apple cores may not be as harmless as you’d think.


As I clambered my way up the trail recently, I passed two languishing young women. One of them regarded her sandwich with distaste. “I am going to toss this. I know there is a squirrel who will appreciate it.”

I cautioned, “We ask people not to feed the wildlife.” As I walked off, one of them opined: “What does she know? She’s hiking in a skirt!”

My sartorial preferences in trail wear aside, there appears to be a prevalent attitude that “organic” litter is copacetic. It will either evaporate into biodegradable thin air or somehow be devoured.

Does it vanish? At an outdoor education center, we set up a few experiments. We built a cage of chicken wire wide enough to allow small animals ingress and egress but small enough to keep items secure from wind. Therein we placed an apple core, a banana peel, orange peels, chewing gum and tissue paper. After six months, the orange peels had dried out, the banana peel was a distasteful black, and the tissue had collapsed into an inert mass. Nothing had rotted or been eaten.

What about interment? We commandeered a terrarium and entombed the same items, some in sand, some in organic soil. Six months later, everything was still recognizable.

Indeed, the venerable Leave No Trace organization has done experiments more sophisticated than mine. Banana peels can take up to two years to decompose, while orange peels can linger up to six months. In an arid environment, orange peels, rather like King Tut’s mummy, will last indefinitely. Citrus contains a natural insecticide: Even the ants won’t touch orange peels. And chewing gum contains rubber, so it won’t rot.

But will not the timid woodland creatures enjoy my discards? Certainly at any rest stop on the trail, one is likely to see obese rodents waddling up and professing hunger.

But think about it: Do we eat banana peels or orange peels? We do not. So why would a squirrel? An apple core is edible, certainly, but if it is not part of the animal’s daily diet, it can change the animal’s biome to the point where it can no longer digest its normal food. Anyone who has experienced so-called “traveler’s tummy” from a change in water or cuisine while vacationing can attest to this. Unless one is hiking through an apple orchard, apple cores are not a part of the local ecosystem.

Realistically, does a humble apple core really cause that much damage? Our national parks are enjoying a plethora of visitation. Grand Canyon welcomes 6 million people a year. It is estimated that 10 percent of visitors hike approximately a mile below the rim. Let us be generous and assume that 90 percent of these sightseers will carry out their trash. But that, for our purposes, presupposes that the remainder will toss, say, something like an apple core. That’s 60,000 apple cores. We would be knee-deep in the execrable things.

So-called “empty calories,” such as those that come from white bread, processed foods and sugar, are not good for us. Why should they be good for wildlife? Animals need some fat to survive winter, but excess adipose tissue is just as bad for them as it is for us. At Alaska’s Denali National Park, there are signs asking people not to feed the marmots so they don’t get too portly to escape from the grizzlies. (Meanwhile, of course, the grizzlies are watching, muttering, “Go ahead, feed them, already!”)

Desert animals have a special difficulty. Many of these critters have no ready source of water: They get moisture from the food they eat. They cannot flush salt from their bodies, and excess salt will kill them.

Animals habituated to human food and, by association, humans, quickly become nuisances. Bears are the extreme example: They will rip off a car door to get at food. Smaller animals tear into packs and tents. Rodents carry hantavirus, rabies and tetanus. The ticks and fleas that inhabit their fur transport Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, relapsing fever and plague. I don’t about you, but I don’t want them cuddling up to me.

Animals that are fed by humans will not collect and store enough food for winter. When hiking season is over and the tourists leave, they face starvation.

The bottom line is, before we got here, the faunae did just fine on nuts, berries, and occasionally each other. They do not need us.

Would the two young women who were tossing that sandwich have done so in their own living room? Certainly not. Then again, considering what my son’s college dorm room looked like, perhaps I should not be so sure.

Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She hikes and works in the Grand Canyon.

 

Showing 15 comments
  • jim
    Reply

    it’s so easy. pack it out. an apple core is way lighter than when you packed it in.

  • Toby A Blauwasser
    Reply

    …hiking in a skirt.
    That person should consider themselves lucky that they didn’t say that to me.

    And pick up your cigarette butts!!!!
    Just as toxic as plastics.

  • Tom F.
    Reply

    “if it is not part of the animal’s daily diet, it can change the animal’s biome to the point where it can no longer digest its normal food.” — I’ve not heard of this before. I’d appreciate a citation if it’s available.

    I think it’s worth noting that just packing it out isn’t really a solution to the problem in and of itself. It’s a stopgap to preserve the aesthetics of public lands. Although that’s something we should all strive towards, we should also be 1.) attempting to minimize food waste (The US wastes about 40% of the food it produces. If we reduced that, think of how much it would lessen the environmental impact of agriculture.) and 2.) composting that which we do in order to close nutrient cycles (otherwise, they just go to linger in anaerobic conditions in landfills, where they’ll remain intact way longer than 2 years). The outdoor community needs to broaden the boundaries of the systems they are considering, otherwise we’re just contributing to environmental degradation elsewhere.

  • Bob
    Reply

    Don’t get me started on the empty beer cans and plastic water bottles thrown aside by hunters. And campfires do not burn up metal, glass and plastics.

    • Mama Grizzly
      Reply

      Agreed..what about shotgun shells and clay pigeons! Ugh

  • Dan Murphy
    Reply

    Didn’t Colin Fletcher often hike in a skirt?

    • Steve Casimiro
      Reply

      Sometimes in his boxers. Or naked.

    • Justin Housman
      Reply

      I saw a Big Agnes down hiking skirt earlier this year and immediately became annoyed there wasn’t a men’s option.

  • Zak
    Reply

    My wife and I have been running an informal experiment on our property for several years. We live in the south (AR) and in a wooded area visited often by squirrels, foxes, raccoons, turtles, birds of all kinds and the occasional coyote. We’ve been putting out vegetable matter in one small place and observing what gets eaten and what doesn’t.

    Our informal finding: everything hates broccoli, and fruits are universally good. Watermelon rinds, old grapes, strawberries, peaches, etc all get eaten. Oddly, the remains of a bag of ready-made salad generally remains untouched.

    We are left to wonder why some things you think ought to be readily devoured aren’t. Pesticide/herbicide residue? Who knows?

    In the meantime, suffice it to say pretty much anything not eaten does get broken down quickly in the hot. humid environment of an Arkansas summer.

  • Sharon
    Reply

    Great essay. Even if they might eventually biodegrade, orange and banana peels look like the garbage they are in the meantime. Here, however, is my “pet” peeve of trash left on public land: those little plastic bags, tightly tied off, of carefully collected dog poo that the thoughtful dog owner leaves on the trail or at the trail head. Huh? I can’t even begin to figure out that logic.

  • Lori
    Reply

    Then there are those who wash dishes in lakes. Fish (generally trout in many high country water sources) do not eat chili, pasta, or anything else you leave in a lake. Yet I have fished out pasta that I saw at the same lake a year ago – it did not degrade in any way, a bunch of bowties three feet down in the clear lake water…

    Most backpacking filters do not take out chemistry (and none of them remove all chemicals), only biologicals, and remember how popular the Steri Pen is now – that literally removes nothing. But Sequoia – Kings Canyon is now instructing everyone picking up wilderness permits to carry water away from the water source to wash off sunscreen etc before going swimming. Because guess what is being found in the water sources? Our chemicals. Trace pharmaceuticals have long been detected in municipal reclamation plants, now they are being found in backcountry lakes. Which means people are not urinating as requested, keeping it out of the waterways….

  • rick
    Reply

    we would all be hypocritical to preach on this subject, me especially, we cant be perfect but by reading this and thinking of all the ways we effect our environment we can be better

  • Jim Tardiff
    Reply

    We spent six days floating through the Grand Canyon in July and I was very impressed at the absence of any type of litter. Our guides (the best!) were adamant that nothing hit the ground…everything was picked up – even food scraps. We have to continue to stress the importance (and definition) of Leave No Trace!!

  • lladnar Nivep
    Reply

    OK, being honest, I rolled my eyes when I read the first few sentences of this article. The author makes some good points however… will need to show the kids.

  • Sigi White
    Reply

    Excellent commentary. It should be printed into a pamphlet and than posted or handed out with bear-aware literature/info to all those (and there are many) going into the back-country and litter. I must admit that I also used to think an apple core was harmless, but no more. I see what we have done to Mother Nature and of course apple cores, banana peels are nothing compared to ripping off the topsoil up in the Oil Sands which will take a few thousand years to repair. But we still say we need oil. Get with it and start the change, as fast as possible, but I digress. Pollution of any sort will compound and we see the huge results all over the place.

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