Friday, July 8, 2011

When is Trash in the Mountains, Not Trash?

Walking through the forest, I notice a plastic bag, a candy-wrapper, and a an old glove.  There is little doubt that these items are nothing more than trash and that they need to be removed.  I regularly pick up garbage in different climbing areas and on the trail; it's part of being a good steward to the area.

Old bottles, old cans, rusted metal, that's all garbage too, right...?

I mean somebody just carelessly left it there, so it much be garbage to be thrown away...

What about native potsherds, arrowheads, or stone tools?  Somebody just left that there too, so it too must just be trash...right?

Ironically, it's not always trash.  Or at least the federal government doesn't see it as trash.  The Archaeological Protection Act of 1979 essentially says that an object is no longer trash if it has been discarded for over 100 years.  At that point it becomes illegal to remove the item from where you found it.

That's right, it is super-illegal to take home that arrowhead you found.  Why?  Because as soon as an archaeological artifact is removed from its resting place, it loses its value.  Part of an archaeologist's job is to determine why something is where it is.  The location of an object gives perspective to the object.

Native objects are one thing, but old cans and bottles are another.  It may not even be clear that an old can or bottle is old enough to qualify under ARPA (that's the snazzy shorthand for Archaeological Protection Act) for protection.

The fourth principal of Leave No Trace is to "Leave What You Find."  The intent is certainly not for you to leave obvious modern trash, but instead to leave these cultural artifacts for others to discover and enjoy in the setting that they've lived in for over a century.

--Jason D. Martin


Anonymous said...


daneastside said...

cool post, i have a couple of "not trash" items that i have collected while hiking.

Josiah said...

a note or two on ARPA: ARPA only applies to objects unearthed from federal lands (BLM, National Parks, National Forests all qualify) but not state lands or private land. and ARPA specifically exempts arrowheads (and only arrowheads!) that are found lying on the ground-- so it is actually ok to pick up an arrowhead lying on the ground on federal land, but not to dig one up! go figure!