The geocaching conundrum
While the sport of geocaching continues to grow in popularity, so do the concerns surrounding its practice.
The pastime, which is especially popular in the Carbon and Emery area, is an outdoor activity in which participants, often referred to as "geocachers," use Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers to hide and seek special containers called "geocaches" or "caches."
A typical cache contains a log book and inexpensive toys or trinkets of little value for trading amongst participants.
Typically, participants locate the cache and then sign the log book inside. If the cache happens to contain any trinkets, the person may optionally take one and replace it with another trinket in their possession. Finally, the cache is returned to its original location. To some, it's a high tech version of treasure hunting.
Dennis Udink, a Carbon county resident and avid geocacher, sees it a little differently. "I like geocaching because it brings me to new places that I wouldn't otherwise have known about. People often hide geocaches in a place special to them - sometimes with a nice view, an important piece of history, or some other interesting attribute that makes the hunt mean more than just finding a hidden container," he says.
Many supporters of the sport also see it as a fun, wholesome family activity. According to Udink, "Whether a family likes to enjoy the outdoors in the mountains or the desert, or prefers a more urban lifestyle, there are geocaches nearly everywhere to be found to fit any family's interests."
A search on geocaching.com, the sport's official Web site, shows literally hundreds of caches in the two county area - evidence that the sport is flourishing, with no signs of slowing down any time soon. And member comments made on many of the caches seems to indicate that a large number of the caches are visited by people from outside the area.
In fact, many see the activity as a boon to increase tourism in the area. The fact that geocaching is already well established in the region may make the region itself more alluring to tourists.
The sport is controversial in some areas, however. Others see it as a type of menace.
One of the biggest problems cited by critics worldwide are the caches that get forgotten or abandoned. These caches, scornfully dubbed "geo-trash" by many, are seen as a potential environmental concern, as they often become litter.
In fact, there have been cases where someone not fond of or unfamiliar with the sport have stumbled upon a geocache by mistake and have removed it. "I've had a couple of geocaches come up missing, one of which was a surprise to me since it was hidden in a remote, obscure location in the San Rafael Swell," Udink says. "For whatever reason, it happens occasionally, but it's one of the risks of hiding a geocache in a public place because anybody who stumbles across a cache accidentally may not know else to do with it, or may consider it a piece of trash in need of disposal. Including a note inside the geocache informing others of its purpose and how to get involved in the game is a good way to avoid such things."
Another valid concern is the impact geocaching can have on sensitive habitats, archaeological and paleontological sites, as well as and important geologic or historical landmarks. The increased human presence that a geocache might attract brings additional, potentially damaging human traffic to these places. Geocachers can cause even further damage if they aren't careful as they go about their hunting.
As a result of these many concerns, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Service have enacted very specific policies regarding the practice of geocaching. The goal of these policies is to ensure the sport has a minimal impact on the public lands that they manage.
Because there is a great deal of public land in the Carbon and Emery area, it's absolutely critical that geocachers in the area are familiar with those policies. In some cases, permits are even required before the geocache can even be placed.
If there is any question or concern that a potential geocache location may not be appropriate, the proper government agency should be contacted.
But concerns exceed environmental issues. Many caches, because of questionable labeling, packaging or location, have been mis-interpreted as dangerous or threatening items - ones that have required the intervention of law enforcement agencies.
In one notable incident, a commuter reportedly spotted a piece of PVC pipe capped at both ends near a bridge. During a similar incident, a metal ammunition box labeled "AMMO" was supposedly found alongside a railroad track.
In both cases, the geocache in question was apparently treated by law enforcement agencies. At times when caches are mistaken as possible explosives, they're often removed to a safe area where they can be safely destroyed.
Such reactions are far more common in today's highly security conscious world, especially after recent threats or acts of terrorism.
Not only do these ill-packaged and inappropriately located geocaches cause a scare, they also waste the time of emergency responders whose time could be better spent elsewhere.
As a result of these many concerns, geocaching has been highly restricted or banned in a number of places in and out of the United States.
According to Udink, "There is some merit to the argument that certain geocaches can be construed as potential threats, though geocaching etiquette dictates that such hides [caches] are discouraged. Those who hide geocache containers should avoid sensitive areas (bridges, dams, railroad tracks, military installations, etc.) and should clearly mark their containers or, better yet, use clear plastic containers so that the contents can be easily identified."
While Udink realizes geocaching may have its potential downfalls, he feels it's a worthwhile activity. "No matter what pastimes or hobbies you have, geocaching can quite often be combined with them to bring a new twist to and enrich those activities. If you ride a mountain bike, motorcycle, or ATV, or you enjoy hiking or sightseeing, or just like to go on walks through your neighborhood, finding geocaches during those activities might bring a little more adventure to your life."
While Utah has not been at the forefront of this growing conflict, the vast amount of public land throughout the state make it an ideal destination for geocachers, which brings greater potential for conflict. The best thing local geocachers can do to prevent such a conflict from happening is to make a conscious effort to follow legal and responsible geocaching.
Tread Lightly!, a national non-profit group whose goal is "to install an ethic of responsibility in outdoor enthusiasts and the industries that serve them," lists the following tips for responsible geocaching:
Check with local land managers to determine regulations before placing or searching for a cache. The National Park Service, for example, has strict geocaching regulations.
Keep vehicles on designated roads and trails.
Practice the "lift, look, replace" technique. If you lift a rock to look under it, replace it exactly as you found it.
Traditional geocaching is not appropriate in areas designated as Wilderness.
Avoid placing a cache in sensitive areas including cultural sites, wetlands, caves and steep slopes.
Avoid burying a cache in the ground.
When allowed to hike off designated trails, spread out in open country. One exception is in deserts, where hikers should travel in single file and try to walk on hardened surfaces such as slick rock, gravel or in sand washes.
After you've finished searching for a cache, the area should look as though you were never there or better than when you arrived.
If crossing private property, be sure to ask permission from the landowners).
Leave gates as you find them.
Additional tips for responsible geocaching are available on Tread Lightly!'s Web site at www.treadlightly.org or by calling 1-800-966-9900.