Christopher Swope was GOVERNING's executive editor.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
A few years ago, Carly Martin, a naturalist with the metro Cleveland parks department, was leading a group of schoolchildren on a nature hike. The kids were looking for salamanders. What one child stumbled upon instead was a mysterious plastic container hidden under a tree. Inside the box were some trinkets, a notebook and a few trash bags. It looked like something that belonged to someone, so Martin put the container back where the child found it.
A couple of weeks later, she got an e-mail from her boss, asking if she'd ever heard of a new sport called "geocaching"--essentially an amateur treasure hunt in which players search for boxes full of cheap objects stashed by fellow enthusiasts in odd places. "I told him I'd never heard of it," Martin recalls, "but that I thought I'd found one." Martin then located a Web site called geocaching.com, where she learned that not only were thousands of goodie boxes hidden in tree trunks and under rocks all around the world but six such "caches" were planted in Cleveland parks, unbeknownst to any local officials. The latitude and longitude coordinates were right there on the Web. If Cleveland geocachers were like those elsewhere, they were hunting down this hidden booty with the aid of handheld orienteering devices called global positioning systems (GPS). And once the gadget geeks pinpointed the loot, they engaged in a curious ritual: They would trade an item from the cache for something of their own, sign the logbook and return the container to its hiding spot.
In the past three years or so, perplexed park rangers around the country have become familiar with geocaching--often by accident, as Martin did. The question, once they've absorbed the news that much of this stealthy but fast-growing new sport takes place on public lands, is what to do about it. Should they embrace geocaching as a new way for people to enjoy public parks? Or should they be suspicious of technophiles skulking around in the woods?
Martin chose to welcome the geocachers. Cleveland not only encourages players to hide items in its parks, but rangers also put out caches of their own, stuffed with parks department keychains, harmonicas or lapel pins. Each summer, Martin hosts a day-long "geocache-athlon" event, in which players must hike, bike, drive or even kayak to find eight of her caches. Last year, 150 people from four states showed up to play, including many families with young children.
Other parks aren't so encouraging. Just south of Cleveland, Summit County bans geocaching in all of its county parks. So does the National Park Service. Some park administrators don't trust geocachers to keep out of environmentally sensitive areas or dangerous places. Nor do they want to deal with the administrative burden of policing the activity. Their concern isn't unfounded. Bomb squads in a number of states, erring on the safe side, have blown up caches placed unwisely under bridges.
A growing number of park managers are adopting a position somewhere between hands-off and an outright ban. In Maryland, for example, Anne Arundel County asks players to abide by a few rules, get a permit and clear cache locations with a ranger first. Caches must be put in a transparent container and can't be buried underground. "Our first knee-jerk reaction was, 'We don't want that in our parks,'" says John Marshall, chief of special facilities for Anne Arundel parks. "Then we did some research. Most players were saying nice things about the parks, and they were picking up trash on their way out. We'd rather embrace geocaching and know where the caches are than not know about it."
State parks in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Illinois have adopted similar rules and permit systems. So has Cleveland. For the most part, geocachers accept that some rules are necessary to protect the public interest. But going legit also takes a bit of fun out of the game. "When I go out and 'cache' with my two young sons, we're finding a hidden treasure box that nobody else in the park knows about," says Janet Allen, a geocacher who recently helped Washington State write its own set of rules. "Sneaking around adds to the excitement."