Backwoods Ethics is one of my favorite hiking and outdoor conservation books. Written by two legendary New England hikers, Laura and the late Guy Waterman, it was first published in 1979 and is still considered a cornerstone of the outdoor conservation and Leave No Trace movement. If you have an interest in the history of hiking and climbing in the White Mountains, Adirondacks, and Maine, I’d also suggest you check out these other Waterman classics: Forest and Crag (available on Kindle) and Yankee Rock (out of print).
Backwoods Ethics is organized as a series of delightful essays that describe New England hiking styles, the surge of over use impacts experienced by the region in late 70′s, and the beginnings of a sense of stewardship by hikers, climbers, the Forest Service and land owners. It’s a great historic snapshot and remarkably contemporary, considering it was written over 30 years ago.
Rules are not what we need. They are inconsistent with the freedom of the hills anyway, and that spirit of freedom is an important part of the mountain experience.
Never preachy, the Watermans tackle some of the most perplexing impact issues head-on including campfires, hiking with dogs, bushwhacking, rock climbing, and winter camping. Instead of dictating a common standard for all of us, they carefully examine the pros and cons of the different viewpoints around each issue and then tell us the choices they’d make to reduce their impacts, in a practical how-to fashion that you can choose to emulate or disregard. It should be no surprise, that many of the techniques they discuss have become standard practice for low-impact recreation, worldwide.
Rather than define a common code of ethics for the Backwoods and Backwoods visitors, the Watermans attempt to rationalize a set of social conventions or etiquette, for how hikers, climbers, and outdoor visitors treat one another and protect the environment they play in so others can experience its glories as well. This might sound like wordplay, but creating an etiquette of social norms is far more open to interpretation and individual choice than defining hard and fast ethical principles. Rather than enforcing rules, the Watermans appeal to individuals to make up their own minds about their backcountry conduct, a viewpoint which is far more practical given the budgetary realities of backcountry management today.
The open question, at least in my mind, is whether a new generation of hikers, climbers, mountain bikers, skiers, and all the users of the backwoods can be persuaded to give up their sense of entitlement over the outdoors and are willing to help preserve it for others. I want to believe that the vision of a backwoods ethics or Leave No Trace lives on, but I sometimes question whether it really has much traction anymore. I’ve met too many people in the backcountry who really don’t give a shit about the consequences of their actions on the environment or on others….a gloomy thought perhaps, going into another White Mountain weekend.