In the case of the John Muir Trail, the old adage holds: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Happily, government agencies and nonprofits alike are mobilizing to educate the public on best practices and promote sustainable use of the wilderness. The National Park Service and the US Forest Service require permits for all through-hikers hoping to travel the trail in whole or in part. Assigned fairly to all hopeful hikers via lottery, these permits ensure that the trail operates at, not above, capacity during the most popular summer months. In addition to limiting the number of hikers, the permitting process also serves to educate visitors about the importance of “Leave No Trace,” a movement to minimize the impact of hiking and camping. Known to many hikers as simply “LNT,” the phrase has become a shorthand for a set of guidelines ensuring sustainable outdoor recreation: be considerate of others and wildlife, carrying your trash out with you when you hike, use existing trails and campsites, preferably on durable surfaces to limit erosion, and leave things as or better than you find them. We certainly encourage people to visit this spectacular region, but we ask all to be respectful of everyone who wants to experience it also.
The proverb “when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging” is appropriate. Following principles of LNT will minimize further damage. Getting out of the hole and fixing the current situation, requires a considerable amount of restoration effort. Physically, restoration efforts are difficult on the Trail’s many miles of high alpine wilderness. Above 8,000’ elevation, with, at best, three to four months between snow-free and first snow, there is little time to conduct boots-on-the-ground restoration. In the wilderness locations of much of the Trail, all work efforts must be accomplished with hand tools—no jackhammers or chainsaws to build trail or clear debris. Moving rock and sand, aerating soils to regrow meadows, placing debris dams to slow erosion, takes long hours with shovels, picks, and heavy wheelbarrows on rough terrain. Additionally, a crew’s supplies – food, bedding, and clothing – must be packed in for miles by mules. The romance of packing in the very same way that Ansel would have lugged his photographic equipment is vivid, but wears off quickly.