Sunday, March 7, 2010

Reputations and Ramifications: What geocaching means to everyone else

We all know the drill. The driver puts the car in park and everyone scrambles out. We stifle the urge to break into a sprint, but the result is a jaunty I’m-not-speed-walking shuffle in the direction of the cache. Any remaining fear of the unknown is brushed aside as we expose ourselves to any number of geohazards. These risks we accept gladly if it means finding the cache before someone else. And if the cache has never been found before, well, it’s on.

If you've never been that person, surely you have witnessed this behavior.

The Reputation

Sometimes we forget that all we are looking for is Tupperware containing a sheet of paper. Just a few months ago, a geocacher in Spokane Valley, Washington slipped on pine needles at the edge of a cliff and fell over 100 feet to his death (full story here). As a continual reminder, a cache in California (GC9135) is dedicated to the memory of another fallen geocacher.

We’re a bit of a nuisance to the public, too. On occasion, geocaching makes the news when the local police department blows up a “suspicious package” or locks down a high school. If you're not convinced, just google "geocaching and police."

Ever since I saw Geocache (a documentary by David Liban, 2006), I’ve done a lot of thinking about the geo-reputation. We all know someone who thinks it’s dorky, and a lot people have never even heard of geocaching, but until I saw the documentary I didn’t realize that anyone disliked it on a professional level. In Geocache, Liban interviews a representative from the Natural Resources department of Larimer county, Colorado, who makes it very clear that geocachers can be troublesome. I had to wonder if he was an outlier, or a true reflection of the public opinion. What I found is that after nearly a decade of geocaching, our reputation definitely precedes us.

The Ramifications

I often visit the logs of geocaches I’ve grabbed in the past, and was surprised to find that two were recently archived. A note on the cache page explains that bill H3794 now prohibits geocaching on all wildlife management areas, heritage preserves, and all other lands owned by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. We certainly didn't feel like we were imposing on the local wildlife, but the state of South Carolina believes otherwise.

A bit of digging revealed that other states also have established guidelines and prohibitions regarding geocaching. For starters, it is not uncommon for caches in sensitive environments to be registered with a local agency.

My search began with a letter against a potential ban on geocaching in the Badlands Wilderness Study Area in Oregon. According to the author, the proposed ban stemmed from a concern about damage from potential geotrails. The author's argument is that the geocaches in question are visited an average of two times per month. He claims this is not enough to create new trails because the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) planners can provide no evidence that geocaching is directly responsible for damage to the landscape.

Today, geocaching in the Badlands is allowed. The existing seventeen geocaches were grandfathered-in, but no more caches are to be placed. They also issued guidelines that geocaching must be of a casual (as opposed to commercial) nature and not harm public land or water. The BLM now lists geocaching in their brochure as an activity. Although, rather than list it with hiking and biking, they list it in the “other activities” section, along with the things you’re not allowed to do. Charming.

Other areas require special permits and/or “cache request” forms in order to hide a geocache. The Minnesota Division of Parks and Trails (MNDNR-PAT) requires an annual permit for geocaches placed on their land. Prior to hiding a cache, the geocacher must also meet with a park ranger to determine a suitable place for the hide. The part of the form I found most interesting is that four individuals must approve it, including an archaeologist. Indiana Jones does indeed have the power to ruin your fun in Minnesota.

Parks Canada takes a slightly different approach. Geocaches placed within their jurisdiction may not include trade items because certain items attract wildlife. I imagine this rule stems from an unfortunate incident including bacon of some Canadian variety. Further, the geocache is required to have an educational message, such as a story about the location where the cache has been placed. In order for a cache to be approved, the cache owner must meet with a Parks Canada staff person (they even tell you what to bring to the meeting) and obtain an authorization seal.

Referring back to the individuals featured in Geocache, I got the impression they feel geocaching is a right and park rangers should be appreciative of their contributions. I agree with this in-theory, but in the real world we as geocachers have a responsiblity to be respectful of our surroundings and cognoscente of the bigger picture. This means dropping the Black Friday-stravaganza attitude and paying attention to what we’re really doing. Although the geocachers I’ve crossed paths with are wonderful, decent people, it takes far less than a majority to ruin a reputation. If we have any chance of correcting this, we have to show everyone that we’re more than FTF-hungry number-fiends.

As supplemental reading, I also suggest an article by geoSquid: “How to keep geocaching from being banned." It’s probably not anything you haven’t heard before, but it is certainly worth the read.

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