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GPS-driven geocaching falls astray of plans for Badlands east of Bend
A ban is planned in the proposed 32,000-acre wilderness for the growing sport that involves searching for planted items
Friday, February 11, 2005
BEND -- Robert Speik ducks under barbed wire, crosses a patch of rabbitbrush and climbs a protrusion of lava rock in the Badlands to look for a box of trinkets.
After a mile's hike, he finds the stash underneath a boulder and surveys the contents -- dog biscuits, stickers, a toy frog, a shot glass and other items -- but the real reward is the view of the Cascade Range to the west from atop the lava.
"This is just such a magical place to come out and wander around in," he says.
But soon the 77-year-old Speik may not be able to go on his modern-day treasure hunts anymore in the Badlands. He's among a new wave of outdoors enthusiasts known as geocachers who use satellite-guided navigation and the Internet to find hidden "caches" all over the country.
This spring, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, citing potential environmental harm, plans to ban geocaching in the Badlands, a 32,000-acre proposed wilderness about 15 miles east of Bend.
The sport has become one of the fastest-growing activities on public lands, pushing managers from the bureau down to city park groundskeepers to develop rules to handle the phenomenon.
Here's how it works: Someone hides a "cache" -- usually small ammunition boxes or plastic containers -- and posts the coordinates on www.geocaching.com. People go to the Web site and search the list of caches, numbering more than 100,000 across the United States.
They find one in their area and punch the coordinates into a satellite-guided global positioning system device, or GPS unit, which directs them to the concealed cache.
Federal agencies don't have a unified policy to deal with geocaching. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for instance, has banned it outright, but the BLM and others leave local managers to develop specific guidelines for caches on their land.
"There's a learning curve for both the land management agencies and the user groups," said Greg Currie, a recreation planner with the BLM in Prineville.
If land managers are confused, so are geocachers. The piecemeal policies are a frequent topic of rumor, discussion and frustration in chat rooms on the Web site.
"I understand that on an intellectual level, it's better management of the public spaces if we get permission for each placement," one geocacher wrote on the site. "On the other hand, that formal step sucks a lot of the fun, semi-subversive nature out of the activity."
In Oregon, geocaching is banned in federal wilderness areas, national wildlife refuges and the state's only national park, Crater Lake.
A few years ago, caches placed along the rim above Crater Lake caused some people to trample on sensitive off-trail vegetation, said Peter Reinhardt, the park's acting chief ranger.
"It caused some problems for us because it concentrates the use," he said, and "we manage (the park) to protect those natural resources."
In the Badlands, the BLM has concluded that geocachers traversing the shrub steppe landscape or scrambling over rocks pose a threat to the delicate ecosystem.
Though the BLM will allow geocaching on most of its other lands in Central Oregon, it wants to keep the sport out of the Badlands, where about 15 caches are hidden in gnarled junipers or out-of-the-way lava fissures.
Five years ago, geocaching was an obscure technophile pastime. Today, more than 140,000 caches are planted in 200 countries. About 1,200 of those are within 100 miles of Bend.
Some land managers consider geocaching little more than organized littering. In 2003, the Fish and Wildlife Service warned geocachers in a letter to the Web site that "federal officers have begun prosecuting individuals involved in geocaching on national wildlife refuges which results in a permanent federal criminal record following conviction in a federal court."
Monitoring the Web site
Marvin Lang, a recreational forester with the U.S. Forest Service in Bend, said his agency monitors the Web site to see if any illegal caches have been hidden in his district. His rangers have removed several caches from the Three Sisters Wilderness. "It's certainly a growing concern," he said.
Other agencies are more open to geocaching, embracing it as a way to bring more visitors to their parks or forests, said Heidi Roth, spokeswoman for Groundspeak, the Web site's creator that is based in Bellevue, Wash.
In Wisconsin, for instance, two members of the state geocaching group review all permits to put caches on state lands, Roth said. Cachers there and elsewhere also work with land managers to hold "cache in, trash out" trips so that geocachers can pick up trash from a site.
Still other agencies barely have heard of the sport.
"It hasn't even hit our radar," said Karen Loper, spokeswoman for the Portland Bureau of Parks & Recreation. More than 2,200 caches are hidden within 100 miles of Portland, including one that takes cache hunters on a tour of the city's fountains.
The bottom line, said Marcia Keener, a National Park Service program analyst in Washington, D.C., is that anyone who wants to place a cache on public lands should first ask permission from the relevant agency.
"The underlying problem is that we are not historically comfortable in dealing with anonymous people doing activities in the parks," said Keener, who works with geocachers for the park service.
"If no one consults us, that really ticks the land managers off to a certain extent," she said. "They're not particularly happy about that."
Bend's Badlands are popular with hikers, birders, equestrians and off-highway vehicle users. An ongoing debate over designating the area as wilderness has brought even more attention, and therefore more people, to the once-obscure desert area.
Supporters of the wilderness designation released a poll of Deschutes County voters Thursday that showed 69 percent favor the wilderness and 19 percent oppose it.
A mix of users
Juggling all the different Badlands users is hard enough, said Currie, the BLM recreation planner. And geocachers represent another ball to keep in the air.
"Over the next 10 to 15 years, we're going to have high levels of use of all kinds in the Badlands," he said. "And the concern was the high number of geocache sites in the Badlands, because it's so close to Bend, would basically encourage off-trail use."
Central Oregon geocachers contend the BLM is overestimating the potential for damage. They estimate that people visit each cache in the Badlands about twice a month, far too little use to cause damage.
In a protest letter mailed to the BLM last week, Speik said the agency failed to take that into consideration in its Badlands management plan.
On Speik's recent geocaching foray, he and his companions were careful to try to leave no trace, but off-trail footprints from them and previous cache hunters were clearly visible leading to the box hidden in the lava rock.
Geocachers appreciate the natural world, Speik said, and he noted that whoever placed this cache wanted people to see the view and appreciate the land they passed through.
"He brought us to this viewpoint," he said. "The purpose of this cache is this place."
Copyright (c) 2005 Oregonian Publishing Co
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