Leaving no trace

Editor’s Note: Howard Copenhaver of Ovando wrote this in 1994. Copenhaver was 89 when he died in 2004. Howard’s daughter Sue Copenhaver Lapka gave permission to reprint this article in full.

Before I can say much about “leaving no trace” in the wilderness, I want to give you an idea of where I am coming from to be able to form any opinion.

My idols as a small boy were “old kid young,” Joe Stattler, Smokie Deneau, also Tom Danaher along with the Preaust boys, all of whose names are embedded in the Bob

Marshal Wilderness and Scapegoat Wilderness areas. Youngs Creek, Stattler Creek, Danaher Valley, Smokes Bridge on the Northfork and Sullivan Cabin on Hawn Creek where Smokie and Rose Bushbalm lives during WWI are all named after these old timers.

Then in the 1920’s, when I was old enough, I followed in their tracks. Back then you just went your merry way fishing, hunting, trapping or whatever. You never thought of what it would be like in 1994. You felt you owned this big beautiful country and never gave a thought that it may not be here forever. Everyone was at fault, the forester vice, outfitters, Fish and Game and private users never realized what was going on.

I have read transcripts written by fathers of wilderness thinking – Leopold, Bob Marshal, Teddy Roosevelt, Olaf Maurie and personally knew a couple of these men. One of the things that sticks in my mind is what one of these boys said – you cannot build wilderness. We can only protect what is left to the best of our ability. Another pamphlet I read was written I believe by Leopold “What worth the Wilderness.” This made me wake up and change my attitude about using Wilderness.

If you have ever read Teddy Roosevelt’s diary of hunting the Yellowstone, he thought he was a great sportsman. He shot as many as five bull elk in one day leaving them to the bears, coyotes and birds – these are his own words – taking only the best trophy heads. His attitude changes and he became the greatest protector of our game and a father of Wilderness. He spoke of traveling for 14 hours on foot and at night he could still see the smoke of their last night’s fire – no thought of making sure the campfire was dead out.

Do you see what I mean? We had the same attitude and abused this country without realizing it for many years. We threw out cans in the brush or buried them along streams in soft ground, built fires anywhere and rode down the trail leaving Mother Nature to clean up the mess. She couldn’t. Now she cries for help.

What brought this so deeply to my mind was the beautiful wild islands I saw laid in destruction during World War II in the South Pacific Islands. It bothered me and I thought a great deal about it. Then in 1949 at an outfitter and Forest Service meeting, I hit them with a plan. Everybody packing into the wilderness areas pack out what you pack in. You should have heard the reception I got. The supervisor of Region one hit the ceiling. Do you mean to say you want us to pack all garbage out from all our Ranger Stations? I said yes. He said you’re crazy.

I finally got three other outfitters to agree with me and start doing this very thing. Herb Tolke, Tom Edwards, Dick Hickey of Lairds Lodge all pitched in. We even dug out old garbage holes and packed them out. The Forest Service saw it was good and established a “Pack Out What You Pack In” policy. It has done great in my opinion.

About 1963, I was camped at the Youngs Creek Ford with a big Wilderness group. At that time there was a meeting of the heads of each Forest District at Big Prairie Ranger Station. They all came up to my camp for drinks and supper that night with the Wilderness group. Some of my guests were perplexed because I had camped them in such a much-used camp. They felt they deserved a fresh camp all of their own. I talked a number of them into coming along with the group from the Forest Service to take a walk down the river bank for three-fourths of a mile and count how many fire scars and tin cans we could see where other people had camped. We counted 31 different spots that had been scared up over the years before.

My question to them was it is better to have a few bigger scarred up camps that can be cleaned up or a lot of them over the length of the river? I still don’t have the answer.

Now to “Leaving No Trace” this is hard to do but I believe that distribution of visitors is a big part of the answer. This can be done by opening trails that have been closed for years. More information on where to get away from the river bottoms and find more enjoyable places of solitude and spectacular scenery.

Equipment is a major factor in backcountry comfort and efficiency. I believe a stove is a must or you have a fire ring and spaded up area where you try to hide the fire scar. We have tent frames of only a few pounds that save cutting poles to pitch camp. When you’re gone, so are the poles.

Livestock is a big factor. When you make camp, either turn them loose to graze, hobble or picket them away from camp area. Horses that are free to graze do far less damage than those that are picketed. If you are afraid of losing your stock, take them where the feed is good. In two hours a horse can pretty well fill up. Watch them. If grain or pellets are used, use a feedbag. Don’t let them paw where you feed on the ground.

Now we can make all the regulations, rules, etc. we want. It will be a Band-Aid on a big wound.

In the last 10 to 15 years, our Wilderness use has doubled and maybe tripled. With a projected growth of another 600,000 people in the next five years for Western Montana, we are in trouble if we don’t prepare for them. These people are not paying these high land prices for only a place to live. They all want to be close to the Wilderness areas. My friends, they are going to use them.

In my opinion from back country experience, we must meet this head on. Wilderness use must be managed much like the parks with designated camp areas maintained by Forest service employees, trails opened to disperse people from the valley floors. I can even see numbers having to be controlled.

People with livestock must be educated to, how, when and where they are used and taken care of. Many of these people will have four or five horses that they have ridden only on private property or bridle pathways. They will have no idea of care and handling in the mountains. I have friends who outfit in the California Wilderness and also the far East Coast. What they tell me scares me to death about our great “Bob.” The Bob Marshall is so accessible from all sides and in reality it is gentle country compared to other wild areas. Education is the answer.

If you have people, you have traces. Ten people will make more traces in one day than 10 head of horses and mules in a week. Stock spreads out. People stick together in a bunch.

I hate to see it come, but I’m afraid that so many regulations are in store for the Bob and Scapegoat Wildernesses that a trip to Sugar Loaf Mountain or Pentagon will be no enjoyment at all. A lot of regulations have been put on the outfitters, trying to “Leave No Trace” – light weight equipment, cutting stock, cutting numbers in the parties, cutting use days, restricting outfitters to certain areas. It hasn’t worked. From what I have seen in the last few years there are more private livestock in the Bob and Scapegoat areas than all the outfitters together own. So in my opinion much of the new “Leave No Trace” has to come from the private sector. Outfitters have to protect Wilderness to protect their business.

I wish I could solve just one of these problems but I can’t.


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