The Untouchable Forest

I am a sustainability director, so I know a lot of good people in the environmental movement: non-profit staff, State agency employees, Federal Government employees. Like me, they want to protect our forests, natural meadows, lakes, streams, and ocean. They have spent their careers working to protect natural areas from development, often taking meager salaries to do so because they believe deep down they are doing the right thing. And, they have done a lot of positive things. I don’t mean to attack these caring people and their good intentions.

But, there is one issue that I fundamentally disagree with them on because I think their intentions are misplaced. That is their overzealous effort to keep natural areas off limits from human interaction. I don’t mean they aren’t building hiking trails and establishing parks for people to visit. They are doing a decent job at that, considering the dwindling opportunities to establish new areas. But, when they establish these parks and trails, they often fall back on their preservationist instincts, and immediately establish totalitarian hands-off rules: don’t go off trail, don’t pick any plants, don’t harm any plants, don’t remove any natural items. Just stay on the trail and walk briskly. Better yet- run. Better even yet- ride your bicycle. You can take pictures of plants from the trail’s edge, but take them quick because you don’t want to get mowed over by a mountain biker. Nature is meant to be enjoyed at a distance and as quickly as possible.

I can understand where their hands-off mentality comes from. Most of them, including myself, were trained in LNT techniques (Leave-No-Trace). It’s a set of ethics that are drilled into anybody studying outdoor recreation or natural science in college. The principal is that when you step into nature, you should do so gingerly, clean up after yourself, and not leave a trace. That way nature can remain just as it was before you, the toxic/destructive human, interacted with it. It’s tough to argue with this logic. After all, we are in the midst of the 6th mass extinction in the history of the world, and it is arguably occurring at a faster rate than most of the others. This is, without a doubt, because of humans and our behavior.

The problem with the LNT approach is not immediately apparent until you either decide you want to interact with nature in a more direct way than our prevailing culture, or you learn about ecological economics. I started questioning the LNT approach through both of these pathways.

First, when I was in college, I decided to expand on my limited foraging knowledge by trying to learn more about wild edible plants, find them, and eat them. Living in predominantly rural Northern New England, I thought, this should be easy. After all, I had been an avid fisherman my whole life and could find many areas where I could cast a line into the water. I reasoned that the same should be true with plants. I’ll just drive the local roads, pull off and forage.

Wrong. Much of Northern New England is posted. For those of you who have grown up in the city, “posted” land is land that is legally off limits to venture onto because the land owner wants it to remain private. The percentage of posted land has increased dramatically from when I was a child, and continues to increase in Northern New England. Whether it is because of landowners expressing LNT ethics, fear of hunters, or just wanting privacy, it depends. But, it’s happening a lot.

With all the posted land spread throughout the rural countryside, what’s a forager to do? Well, the next best thing is to find an established “natural area.” This can be a wildlife park, wildflower park, bird park, hiking mountain, recreation park, or any kind of park. There are town parks, state parks, federal parks, parks managed by environmental nonprofits, private parks, and everything in-between. Unfortunately, what most of these parks have in common is that they have well established rules against walking off trail, damaging plant life, picking plant life, or removing any natural items. What they do promote is walking, running, biking, skiing and in some cases, even snow-mobiling or four-wheeling. In most of New England (North, South, East, West), one would be hard pressed to find a “natural area” that doesn’t have these rules against foraging. In fact, my wife and I have found that there are more “natural areas” that allow off-leash dogs than ones that allow foraging. And, there are vastly more natural areas that allow hunting than foraging (Though I would note that there is also not enough hunting land, but that’s another blog for another day).

Okay, so if you can’t forage in posted areas where you are not allowed to exist and you can’t forage in “natural areas” where you are only allowed to visit if you don’t touch anything, then what’s left? The answer is un-designated, un-marked, un-posted land. This land is a lot harder to find than you might think, even in a rural area. When you do find those rare pieces of land here and there, they are often very close to heavily polluted areas like power-line corridors, the edges of roads, old industrial parks, or peoples’ homes. Foraging alone when you’re a man carrying a back pack is a good way to get the police called on you if it doesn’t look like you are hiking, or hunting, or fishing (all things that are more readily accepted in our society). I’ve been approached many times by concerned neighbors thinking that I must be homeless or committing a crime, simply because I was examining plants in an un-marked area. God forbid!

In fact, there is now a deliberate effort to keep people from foraging. Within the last five years in Maine, there have been at least two serious legislative efforts that I know of to require foragers to actively seek out the landowner for any unposted land and acquire written permission from them in order to take any plant or mushroom. Thus you would have to find the land, look at it from a distance, drive to the town library, study tax maps to find the correct parcel, look through real-estate records to find the owner of the parcel, find the owner’s address, contact the owner, and then drive to the owner’s residence to meet with them (by the time you do all of this, the plant or mushroom you wanted to harvest has surely gone by). And mind you, this is for un-posted land, the last type of land you can technically still forage on. Thankfully, these two efforts were squashed by activist foragers like myself who called and wrote to the legislators to try to talk them into voting no.

If you’re reading this and you’re thinking, okay- I get your point- it’s hard to forage, but I don’t forage so I don’t care. Or maybe you’re thinking that I shouldn’t be foraging anyway because it degrades the environment. Either way, here’s why I’d like you to re-consider your position:

  1. If you’re going to ask that land be hands-off from direct impact, then at least be consistent. It doesn’t make sense to outlaw foraging, if you are still allowing recreationists to let their dogs run off leash trampling myriad plant matter and literally shitting all over the woods. It also doesn’t make sense to outlaw foraging if you’re going to allow people to spray incredibly toxic DEET all over their bodies and the surrounding soil so that it can settle on leaf tops, leech into the ground, and get whisked away into water bodies, disrupting the nervous systems of wildlife and causing genetic mutations in a range of species. Sadly, it is one of the substances most frequently found in surveys of woodland streams. The same goes for the toxic sunscreens we wear that are directly injected into the ecosystem when we swim in natural areas. Even allowing people to wear shoes with rubber bottoms or to sport nylon clothes is directly damaging the natural area because those materials abrade readily and sink into the soil and float away in the water. Nylon is made of plastic, and micro plastics are finally being recognized as a catastrophic environmental issue that is not only degrading ecosystems, but haunting humans through health issues. So, if you’re not going to allow foraging because it causes a direct impact, then by the same logic, don’t allow all these other harmful activities that are widespread and much more problematic.
  2. Even if you keep your dogs on leashes, clean up every last one of their shits, don’t spray DEET, don’t use sunscreen, go barefoot, and practice LNT like it’s your frickin’ Bible, you’re still impacting the environment in obscene, horribly degrading ways. That is because LNT is a false concept. There is no separation from humans and nature in general, but especially in our current global economic system. All the things people buy to recreate have enormous impacts on the environment, impacts that far outweigh people who walk off trails and harvest the occasional plant for personal use. Some of the everyday things that have atrocious impacts include shirts, pants, socks, shoes, hats, sunscreens, bug sprays, tents, sleeping bags, mountain bikes, guns, fishing poles, phones, headphones, GPS units, binoculars, canoes, kayaks, dog leashes, dog collars, flea treatments, tennis balls, basketballs, baseballs… personal vehicles…just to name a few. And, when I say enormous impact, I mean the loads of embodied energy, embodied carbon, embodied water, and embodied pollution that goes into harvesting the raw materials to make those items, transporting them to factories all over the world, building them in small pieces all over the world, assembling them into larger pieces all over the world, and then transporting them to stores. And those are just the steps that happen before you come into the picture. When you come into the picture, you are driving to the store to get them, then you are taking them home in plastic bags and huge amounts of packaging, then you’re using the item until it begins to break down a little (and because many people don’t know how to patch or fix items these days), you’re often throwing it away and then buying something new to start all over again. And, where does it go after you throw it out? You know the story—it goes right back into the environment, being dumped in someone else’s natural area, or dumped into the ocean, or burned into toxic chemicals that then rain down on natural areas. In some rare circumstances where the item is purely plastic, paper, metal, or glass, then it sometimes gets recycled which is sometimes better, but remember that recycling things requires a lot of energy, which has environmental impact, and a lot of things that end up in the recycling stream don’t actually get recycled because of all kinds of global market forces. The bottom line is that the way the average American lives their life is the biggest threat to the ecosystem, multiple times greater than the impact of walking off trail and harvesting plants for personal use. Even if you ignore all that and just focus on where you get your food: would you rather allow someone to eat a plant from the wild that lived most of its life helping an ecosystem thrive or eat a comparable plant that was grown in a field that had previously been forest, but was clear cut, and was grown with pesticides that run-off into the local river, having a negative impact for miles downstream? Which food choice seems more ecologically friendly?
  3. The answer to saving the ecosystems around us is usually not pure protectionism. I say “usually” because I believe some especially sensitive habitats with critically endangered populations should remain off limits, at least while we weather the current crisis we are in. But, I believe that at least three quarters of the natural areas in New England could sustain direct, mindful engagement with humans, so long as sensible limits of engagement are established either by government or local cultural norms. And, this direct, mindful engagement is possibly our best chance to save our ecosystems. Thirty-minute morning jogs down nature paths, hikes meant to “bag” mountains, and fly-by mountain bike expeditions are not going to save the world. At best, they keep people from facing the fact that their lives in modern industrial society are too often depressing, unconnected from community and nature, and unfulfilling. At worst, this fast-paced, hands-off nature mentality is destructive because of its complacency, enabling people to do horribly destructive things to nature in their everyday lives (by living in our modern culture) while they think of themselves as sympathetic to environmentalism, and therefore adequate environmentalists. I’m using hyperbole here to make a point that passive (especially fast-paced) engagement with nature is inadequate at building deep knowledge of a landscape, understanding of how it needs to be protected, and an empathy toward all its constituent parts (not just how it looks as a sea of green). I do commend people for trying to get into nature, no matter how fast-paced, distant, or infrequent. For many people who are indentured to their jobs as a means of survival (like myself), they take what they can get for time with nature. But, just because they don’t have the ability and flexibility to engage with nature on a deeper level doesn’t mean they should prevent others from engaging with nature on that level. In fact, I would argue that we need to be promoting a much more active and direct relationship with the natural world, one where people explore off trail, learn the plants, trees, mushrooms, bugs and animals. One where people start to eat those things and support industrial agriculture a little less. One where people become so knowledgeable about their local flora and fauna that they start to take notice if a particular species is suffering. And start to really care when one species is suffering because they depend on that species and have a direct relationship with it. And most importantly, one where people take action to protect those species, not just by harvesting it more lightly, but by changing their lifestyles to reduce greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate change, reduce dumping toxins down their drains, reduce production of tons and tons of toxic garbage, etc. If you think our connection to nature is already strong enough as a species to adequately protect ecosystems, then let me ask you a simple question: do you know at least five local, indigenous flora and five local, indigenous fauna? Would you be surprised to know that most Americans don’t know five of each? In fact, when I teach a class, workshop or lead a walk on an environmental studies topic, I often ask participants if they can name five. Fever than 10% can in every audience I’ve had so far, no matter how sympathetic they are to the cause. No matter how sympathetic you are and how caring you are, how can you create effective laws, rules, and regulations for species if you don’t know they exist? You have to know your neighbors in order to help them. If the elderly woman living on your street needed help shoveling snow, would you be able to help her shovel if you didn’t know she existed? Probably not.

I’m not going to present all the answers to this challenge, because I don’t know all the answers. But, I do believe that we need to loosen our restrictions on natural areas and start to actively encourage people to engage with nature on a deeper level. This effort should be done mindfully and paired with teaching opportunities to learn how to interact sustainably with landscapes.

If we work hard at it, we might be able to create local cultures around our natural areas where people both depend on the landscape and protect it simultaneously, where people notice when things need attention and take action immediately.

Maybe then our natural areas could have more signs like the following one that my wife and I found in Washington State. It still restricts people to the trail, which I’m not a fan of, but it explicitly allows foraging, which is a big step in the right direction:

The sign is sensible in that it doesn’t say you can take all the plants and mushrooms you want. Rather, there are harvest limits, as there should be (either established by government or local cultural norms). I have literally never seen a sign like this in New England, and I have been to easily over 100 natural areas.

It’s time to do this in the Northeast before we lose too much more knowledge and connection to nature. Once people forget entirely about certain species, it will be impossible to manage their protection. Not only will they not know exactly how to protect the species, but they won’t care about them on the human level that motivates us. We can’t truly care about things if we don’t know them.