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Sacred Nature: Just Another Commodity?

I held back and let the first-timers approach first, as we always do.

“What the hell is this?” rang out.

Loss of the Sacred

In early October, a group of us went to a sacred site in a nearby designated Wilderness Area. The site is on the government’s list of protected Cultural Sites. No one is allowed to disturb or take anything from this site. It has been used for spiritual ceremonial purposes for millennia and continued to be used until recently by members of the nearby Nation that once controlled the land.

Yes. I am being deliberately vague about what and where this place is. Here’s why:

My first trip to this place with tribal spiritual leaders was in 1983. Since then I have joined a group that varies from six to a dozen and participated in the annual ceremony there whenever I could. With heavy hearts, the group has chosen to end the annual ceremony ­ breaking a centuries-long streak.

The end came two years ago as, after the group arrived and set up for the ceremony, another twenty-seven people and seven dogs arrived ­ all of them toting a guidebook with the site prominently featured with a spectacular photo that draws in the crowds. Until this guidebook came, there wasn’t even a trail to this place. In fact, one had to climb a dangerous cliff to get there. Now, fifteen years later, there are a series of trails trashing their way through the forest. Erosion and compaction just from human traffic has altered the ecology of the area. A fragile swath of flowering plant life has disappeared beneath the hiking boots of the many visitors.

I spoke to the guidebook author about it once and he was insufferable in his contempt for our concerns.

So, given we could not turn off the crowds, we shut it all down. Perhaps not a moment too soon, as this October’s visit gave us one more major reason why this site is no longer appropriate for ceremonial use.

A New Scourge

That day, we uncovered a Geocaching Box. Geocaching is a game played by GPS aficionados. A box of some sort with log book and trinkets is placed in a special spot and then the GPS coordinates are published on a website. The goal is to find the box/site using one’s GPS device and then check in with the website to claim success — a high-tech version of those Audubon Life Lists of Birds.

How am I offended? Let me count the ways:

1) It’s a Sacred Site used for ceremonial purposes for millennia;

2) It’s designated Wilderness where such technology is off-limits;

3) It and 9000 acres were added to the Wilderness due to the dogged efforts of one of my dear friends (and her allies) who died in a tragic accident before she could see it so designated.

This is not an isolated incident. The four-year-old “sport” is growing in popularity. And government land management agencies are being forced to ban the destructive activity from more and more places.

“There are well over 100,000 people playing the game worldwide,” said Bryan Roth, who handles business development at Groundspeak, a Seattle company that runs the game.

As of today, there are 12,7633 active caches in 212 countries. California leads the nation in caches with over 4000.

Here’s how to play according to their website:

What are the rules in Geocaching?

Geocaching is a relatively new phenomenon. Therefore, the rules are very simple:

1. Take something from the cache

2. Leave something in the cache

3. Write about it in the logbook

Where you place a cache is up to you.

It’s that final rule that galls me. NO it is NOT up to you. Hundreds of miles of sloppy, illegal trails have been carved to geocaching sites. And it’s not like these GPS users don’t have a lot of other tech fetishes that they also bring along. Off Road Vehicle (ORV) trails have been gouged in to some sites, as well. ORV use on Public Lands has risen from 5 million users in 1972 to over 40 million today.

Who’s Behind It

Like most “sports” these days, there are corporate sponsors. A quick check of the Geocaching website lists Jeep as a major sponsor. REI, Inc, the sham co-op that won’t be oversold when it comes to recreational goods is a main sponsor, as well ­ gotta move those Magellans (GPS devices). Added to the insult is the monthly publishing of GPS coordinates to the nation’s very best hidden Wilderness sites in Backpacker magazine — sponsored, of course, by a GPS manufacturer.

Each month Backpacker Magazine highlights an unknown, unexplored, “secret” place on public lands. They publish maps complete with all the various GPS waypoints one needs to navigate directly to that special secret spot. Pretty much any place they target will be destroyed.

Behind these corporations and their glossy magazines is the American Recreation Coalition. This trade group does all it can to promote technological recreation, or “industrial wreckreation” as Scott Silver of Wild Wilderness puts it. Silver has experience with the “sport” and notes, “Geocaching is a part of a larger problem/agenda — that being the intrusion of technology in Wilderness and the loss of wildness that results. Cell phone use in Wilderness is another component. The use of 3-D mapping to preview your “Wilderness Adventure” is another example. My personal opinion is that wildness is being destroyed by the inappropriate use of technology in Wilderness and that while some of this use is being promoted innocently and naively, some is being promoted for the purpose of deliberately destroying the concept of wildness.”

Of course, no one would bother to accomplish this without a profit motive. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Dale Bosworth had this to say about the recreational use of Wilderness at ARC’s annual meeting in early January this year:

“Today, outdoor recreation is huge in the United States, and it will probably just keep on growing. We estimate that the number of national forest visits is 15 to 20 times greater today than it was in 1945. In 2002, we had more than 214 million visits, including 12.7 million wilderness visits. There were also hundreds of millions of visits to the national parks and other public lands. And recreational uses just keep on diversifying. You heard presentations on some of the new technologies people are using to enhance their recreational experiences-things like geocaching, global positioning systems, and the four-stroke snowmobile.

But it’s not really the technology that keeps people coming. It’s the memories. Most people will always remember catching their first fish, making their first climb, or seeing their first bear. People are coming for memories like these. They come for memories of splendid scenery and natural landscapes, which consistently rank among the highest values in our visitor surveys. Some come for memories of wildlife or outdoor adventure. Some come for memories of wilderness.”

So, in other words, don’t expect the USFS to do anything about geocaching, other than promote it like this. Some people would clearly like that wilderness experience to be wild and free of such technological intrusions. In fact, that’s the law! Some would like to continue traditions that began long before there ever was a Forest Service. Sadly, the laws protect ORVs and snowmobiles more than they do spiritual rights.

Who are the folks who prefer their experience via geocaching? Well, in the logbook at the site, Meatshield and Captain Chronic (no kidding!) wrote in response to a prior entry by a group of high school girl’s soccer players, “Painfully regret missing the soccer chicks. Could’ve been one hell of an orgy!!!”

Just thinking of how we’ve been forced to abandon this special place because of such knuckleheads rankles. Would they place such a box in a synagogue, cathedral or mosque and then lament their lost orgy?

Thanks to an inconsiderate guide book author and this high-tech game it’s over for us. I’m sure the same dynamic is playing out all over those 212 countries. I can only hope that the folks behind geocaching wake up and take their own words seriously. “We consider Geocaching a family oriented sport, and are very concerned about the environmental impact of Geocaching in our world’s forests. Any cache that is reported to endanger the environment will be removed from the site.”

Since they all endanger the environment/habitat, not to mention spiritual values, perhaps it’s time to close this “sport” down?

MICHAEL DONNELLY is a forest activist from Salem, Oregon. He can be reached at: pahtoo@aol.com

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MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com

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