By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007
The Fairfax County Park Authority is drawing up guidelines to accommodate people who participate in geocaching, a freewheeling form of treasure hunting that relies on global positioning devices to locate hidden objects in parks and other public places.
As geocaching grows in popularity nationwide, county park officials hope to balance the interests of geocachers with the need to protect the parks from possible damage, parks spokeswoman Judy Pedersen said last week. The geocaching guidelines have been in the works for several months and are expected to be completed this fall, she said.
"We want to accommodate this activity," Pedersen said. "We know it's been getting popular over the past five years. We think it's great. It gets people out in our parks. But we need to have some restrictions."
Until now, geocachers were required to get written permission from park managers before placing a cache there, and rules could vary from park to park. Pedersen said park officials hope to issue blanket rules that would open up about 100 parks, a quarter of the parks the authority oversees.
The move comes at a time when the National Park Service is also reviewing its policies on geocaching.
Geocaching offers a modern twist on the scavenger hunt. Participants, known as geocachers, hide objects in public places and list their coordinates online. Other participants then use Global Positioning System devices to try to find the caches. These might be plastic containers buried in the ground or magnetic boxes attached to a park bench. Often the boxes contain a logbook and trinkets, such as a key chain or plastic toy.
Geocaching etiquette calls for finders to sign the log. If they take a trinket, they are also supposed to leave something behind. There are other variations, such as a virtual cache that might require a seeker to find the answer to a question related to a historical site. Some caches have been put underwater for scuba divers and others on a mountain ledge. Some caches contain items that are intended to travel from place to place, such as special tracking tags or a Mr. Potato Head. Geocachers post the coordinates of new caches and report their visits on Web sites such as http://www.geocaching.com.
GPS technology was developed by the military in the 1960s. It uses signals from satellites to fix a location on Earth and provide its latitude and longitude. The devices can be accurate within six feet. The first geocache was placed in Oregon in May 2000 after civilians received access to the satellite signals.
William Tobalske, a board member of the Northern Virginia Geocaching Organization, said there are more than 3,000 caches within 50 miles of the District, or about twice as many as there were about two years ago.
"It's a way to get out and see things and do things with people," he said. Tobalske, 61, of Reston, said the organization has attracted 428 members since its founding last October.
Members of the Northern Virginia geocaching community welcome the park authority's efforts to collaborate with geocachers on working out some rules, Tobalske said. Both sides met in March to discuss possible guidelines. But Tobalske said there is also frustration at the officials' slow pace so far and a feeling that the county has been slow to catch on to the widespread interest in geocaching.
"It just seems to be taking a long time for them to make up their minds," Tobalske said. He also said geocaching is a way of enjoying the environment, and interacting with the outdoors, not damaging it, and so geocachers strive to leave the land undisturbed.
Pedersen said the park authority's draft guidelines would prohibit placing any cache more than 25 feet from an authorized trail and would require placement near a parking facility to prevent people from blazing their own trails into wild areas. Geocaching would not be permitted on land that the park authority leases from other entities, such as 60 acres at Baron Cameron Park in Reston or 54 acres at Langley Fork Park. Nor would geocaching be allowed at Clemyjontri Park, because of concerns that it might conflict with the high number of children there, or at Hunter House, because of the large number of weddings there, or Mount Air, because of the archaeological importance of the 18th-century plantation overlooking the Accotink River in southeastern Fairfax.
The draft guidelines would also prohibit geocachers from attaching anything to a "living or non-living resource," such as by tying a container to a tree.
The National Park Service has also headed in a similar direction.
Chick Fagan, acting director of the National Park Service's Office of Policy, said geocaching is not illegal in the nation's parks. But he said geocachers must obey all park rules, including prohibitions against digging or otherwise disturbing the environment and entering sensitive areas that are off limits because they shelter wildlife or vulnerable plants.
"We want people to have fun in the parks. But we want them to have fun in a way that does not damage the resources in our care," Fagan said. He pointed to a pilot EarthCache project at Acadia National Park in Maine. The program, sponsored by the park, guides GPS users to geological points in search of historical clues, but there are no physical boxes or caches to find.