Columbia — Small green ammo boxes are being scattered across the landscape in Columbia’s parks. The green ammo boxes are full of trinkets or coins or clues to another ammo box left behind by someone else.
These boxes are called caches. Finding these strategically placed boxes using a personal Global Positioning System, or GPS, unit is called geocaching.
It all starts when someone places the small cache, which is usually a green ammo box or a plastic storage container. The cache is filled with a wide variety of objects including coins, souvenirs, small figurines, toys and a log book.
The person marks the spot on their GPS unit by using coordinates based on latitude and longitude lines.
These coordinates and a short description about the cache are uploaded to the official geocaching Web site, geocaching.com.
Visitors to the site scan for caches in their area by entering their city into the search engine. After picking a cache, the hunter heads out with the coordinates in an attempt to find it in the middle of the woods or in the middle of a neighborhood park. After finding the cache the hunter will usually write in the log book when they found it and whether they exchanged any items.
The first documented geocache using a GPS was by Dave Ulmer of Beavercreek, Oregon on May 3, 2000, and since then the sport has become very popular. At the end of 2000 there were only 75 reported caches. Now,there are a total of more than 475,000 worldwide, according to the geocaching Web site.
According to the geocaching Web site, the city of Columbia has more than 50 caches and well more than a 100 are peppered around Boone County.
Bruce Barkelew and Leslie Bratton of Columbia recently added a cache on June 24 called “Road to Nowhere.”
“We just added it and already several people have stopped by and traded some trinkets and left some cool things behind,” Bratton said.
Supporters of the sport agree that it is here to stay and is a good way to get people out of the house.
“We find people coming out here who might not of otherwise come out to the park,” said Kathryn DiFoxfire, Interpretive Resource Technician at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.
DiFoxfire adds that more and more people are staying inside, and this could become a big concern to the parks in the future. She said she worries that if people don’t come out to the parks, they will not support them in the future. After incorporating technology into the outdoors, a new category of people will be drawn to the parks.
Opponents of the sport argue that geocaching is against most park rules.
A lot of parks enforce the “Leave No Trace” policy, which encourages visitors to make as little human disturbance as possible and take out what they bring in. Leaving a box filled with trinkets in the woods appears to violate the policy.
The Code of Federal Regulations for federally managed lands states that burying or abandoning personal property in national parks and forests is prohibited.
The official geocaching Web site states that you will be in violation of federal regulation by placing a cache in any area administered by the National Park Service and encourages people to get permission before placing any cache.
“When we posted ours, it had to be reviewed by theWeb site and they asked tons of questions and wouldn’t post it before it was approved. We had to prove that it was not on private property and we showed them the coordinates. They looked on a map and said it was on private property, so we had to prove that it was not,” Bratton and Barkelew said.
Most park systems now have policies concerning geocaching. For the state parks, the person wanting to place the cache must file for a permit and have it approved before placing the cache in the park. The parks also permit only one cache per 200 acres.
Columbia Parks and Recreation used to require a permit to place a cache, but now park managers keep a careful lookout for newly-placed caches in their parks.
The geocaching Web site does suggest using common sense when placing geocaches and planting them in areas in which they cannot be seen as potentially hazardous.
“We don’t want to see an old ammunition box in the public space without knowing what it is,” Columbia Park Services Manager Mike Griggs said. “We don’t really allow them near playgrounds, sports areas and pools.”
Another concern with the sport is whether or not the geocaches are hurting the environment. Opponents to the sport believe that people are destroying the ground near the caches by walking off trails and disturbing the landscape and surrounding plant life.
“The most common side effect is that they create a new trail. The GPS unit doesn’t tell you how to get there but a lot of times people will say, ‘Well there is a trail leading kind of near it.’ Then they will leave the trail and sort of bushwhack through the woods. And if everyone bushwhacks in the same direction then over time you got a new trail that is left behind,” DiFoxfire said.
Park officials across the country are responding to the new sport by implementing geocaching policies and keeping a careful watch on the location of the caches and the people participating in the sport. Mostly the participants do a good job of controlling themselves.
“The group that does geocaching usually polices itself. They don’t cause many problems at all,” Griggs said.
Compaired to other sports, like baseball or soccer, which require more grounds maintenance and equipment, geocaching demands very little from park resources.
“It is an easy program to allow. Very little effort on our part. Very little restrictions or authority to govern the program,” Griggs said.
“Right now we are not in the monitoring stage. We neither are promoting it nor not allowing it. We are just kind of watching it and seeing how it goes,” Griggs said.