“Take nothing but photographs; leave nothing but footprints.” I first read this maxim in a textbook in elementary school, and I’ve remembered and loved it ever since. Aside from the cadence of this call to protect the outdoors, I think it’s so memorable because it reinforces its message with its word choice. It only alludes to garbage, greed, or carelessness keeping these words away from what it promotes - the responsible enjoyment of the outdoors.
Last year, officials at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah also chose to reinforce their message with word choice. In a plea to the public to stop trashing the park, officials highlighted the clash between trash and nature, “Single-use masks, Steller’s jays, cigarette butts, short-horned lizards, plastic water bottles, ponderosa pines, orange peels, prairie dogs, and always one sock or shoe (never two.) Among the park’s flora and fauna, some things just don’t belong, and trash is definitely one of them…” The park was overwhelmed with trash due to the increase in visitors seeking an escape from quarantine. (1)
Bryce Canyon is not the only park suffering from popularity, but this issue is hardly new.
For instance, Max Patch on the Appalachian Trail has suffered from overcrowding for years; its damage was in the spotlight last September. Visitors to this mountain bald have left piles of garbage and debris, have not been properly disposing of waste, and have been tearing down fences and signs. (2)
While researching these issues, I discovered a group working on a solution. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has developed a framework that expands on the simple statement from my textbook and teaches outdoor enthusiasts how to minimize the effect of their presence. The Leave No Trace Seven Principles include:
Plan Ahead and Prepare.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Dispose of Waste Properly
Leave What You Find
Minimize Campfire Impacts
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org. (3)
The Center recognizes that its educational programs cannot prevent all impacts on the land. It separates human actions into five categories: illegal, unavoidable, careless, unskilled, and uninformed. Its programs are most effective with those whose actions are careless, unskilled, and uninformed. (4) These visitors either do not know how to properly minimize their effect on the land, do not realize the damage their outdoor activities cause, or both.
Ben Lawhon, the Center’s Director of Education and Research, is clear that the Leave No Trace Seven Principles exist as a tool for outdoor enthusiasts rather than as a set of requirements. This is partly because there cannot be one set of regulations for every situation one might encounter in the outdoors. Lawhon notes, “All we’re doing is saying stop and think. Because Leave No Trace is not black or white, I mentioned that it’s not rules or regulations, it’s not about being right or wrong. Leave No Trace is about making the best decision we can given the circumstances.” (5)
Therefore, the Center assesses its success in terms of effort not results. Lawhon explains:
"Leave No Trace is not about perfection; it's about action. It’s about doing what you can to minimize your own individual but cumulative impact on the landscape...Leave No Trace is a spectrum. On one end, there’s loads of impacts, and on the other end, there’s very few. What we’re asking people to do is just find your place on that spectrum. Do something to minimize your impact." (6)
And I think that’s all anyone who enjoys the outdoors wants to see from other visitors - a realization that they aren’t acting in a vacuum and an effort at minimizing their effects on the land and others. Outdoor enthusiasts know that perfection isn’t a realistic goal; they know better than anyone the dilemmas one can encounter outside. Further, very few can perfectly follow all Leave No Trace Principles every trip every time. In fact, I’m sure an eagle-eyed reader can find instances on this blog where my time in the outdoors did not perfectly follow Leave No Trace Principles. Therefore, the purpose of this post is not to boast a position of authority on the subject or quibble over the finer points of minimizing damage in our natural areas. Instead, my goal is to share what I have learned about common outdoor habits whose damaging effects can easily be avoided.
Four outdoor actions illustrate most of the Leave No Trace Seven Principles
Instead of hypothetically discussing each of the Leave No Trace Seven Principles, I’d like to discuss them in the context of four specific actions of outdoors visitors. I have either repeatedly witnessed these behaviors myself, heard about them in conversation, or have read about the consequences so frequently that it is clear they need more attention. I will publish a second part to this post that will focus solely on the reasons why some areas require dogs to be leashed. While Leave No Trace Principles are not rules, I cite Tennessee State Park rules where appropriate to provide a complete picture of the consequences of these actions.
Blaring music affects other visitors and wildlife
First, I often pass other hikers who play music through speakers. Many people come to parks to get away from noise and enjoy the sounds of nature: birds chirping, wind blowing in the trees, water flowing in creeks and streams. These soothing natural sounds are masked by music played by others. LNT Principle Seven: Be Considerate of Other Visitors reminds us that part of leaving no trace of our visit is considering how our actions affect others.
Playing music through speakers is not only annoying to others, but it could be harmful to wildlife in the area. Scientists have found that animals must change how they communicate with each other by sound due to noise from humans. (7)
Lawhon notes that noise from humans such as from planes overhead or vehicles on nearby roads can negatively affect animals’ ability to hunt, and animals around less-traveled trails have less tolerance to noise and are more likely to flee. (8)
This EcoWatch article, Traffic Sounds Make It Harder for Birds to Think, Scientists Find, discusses a study where birds had to perform tasks in silence and while listening to a recording of traffic similar to that found in a partly rural area. Scientists discovered that the birds had a much harder time finishing the tasks when they listened to the noise. In fact, when the birds had to remember where food was hidden it took them twice as long while listening to the traffic sounds as when they did this activity in silence. The same article reported on a study of the effect of noise on the mating habits of two-spotted crickets. Male two-spotted crickets attract females with sound by rubbing their wings together. When the male crickets had to compete with noise from humans, mating declined. (9) EcoWatch also recently reported on a study discussing the negative effects of human noise on marine life. (10) So before someone packs their speakers for their outing, they should think about the consequences of noise pollution.
They should remember LNT Principle Six: Respect Wildlife as well and consider how their music might affect the daily lives and even survival of animals. There’s a quick fix to avoid annoying other visitors and harming wildlife: simply wear headphones to keep enjoying your music while respecting others.
Social trails damage our natural areas
Second, most hikers have seen trails that branch off the official trail. These are called “social trails” and are created when people leave the trail. (11) There are many reasons why some do this including trying to get to the edge of a lake or river or take in the view from an overlook. Sometimes people want to avoid switchbacks, the sections of a trail that zig zag up and down steep hills.
Trails exist so we can enjoy the park without destroying it. By keeping to the trail, we keep the impact of our hiking to one path. When hikers go off trail, they crush plants, contribute to erosion, and can drive away wildlife. Remember that wildlife includes all of the insects and small creatures that you might not see!
These social trails can take years to heal. (12)
This article from the National Park Service, Social Trails and Hiker Psychology: Impact Monitoring on the Harding Icefield Trail, provides a great overview of the work and resources required to monitor off-trail damage, maintain trails, and encourage visitors to keep to the official path. (13)
LNT Principle Two: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces directly addresses this damage, but LNT Principle One: Plan Ahead and Prepare is also relevant. If you want to take in the best views on a hiking trip or really want to spend some time on the water’s edge, research your destination, and choose a trail that includes these opportunities rather than going off-trail to seek them.
Approaching or feeding wildlife endangers yourself, others, and the animals
Third, getting too close to wildlife or feeding them can be dangerous to both animals and humans. LNT Principle Six: Respect Wildlife addresses these consequences.
When you encounter animals outside, it is important to give them plenty of space so they do not feel threatened. At best, an animal that believes it’s in danger will flee unnecessarily expending energy. At worst, the threatened animal will attack which not only could be fatal to the human but could be fatal to the animal if it must be euthanized.
Two incidents from last summer illustrate the danger of getting too close. In June, a woman in Yellowstone National Park approached a bison repeatedly to take its photo. It gored her, but she survived. (14) In August, a woman left her motorcycle in South Dakota’s Custer State Park and approached a herd of bison. While she was photographing a bison and its calf, another bison rushed her and swung her around before flinging her aside and leaving. (15) Both of these attacks could have been avoided if these women had understood the danger they were creating with their actions.
Not all animal attacks are caused by intentional human interference. In addition to some attacks by sick animals, sometimes visitors to outdoor spaces accidentally get too close to wildlife. In late 2019, a hiker in Utah’s Antelope Island State Park encountered a bison on the trail. Even though she got off the trail to separate herself from the bison, it attacked and flung her in the air; she survived. (16) Sharing the same space as wildlife carries its own dangers, and we should take every opportunity to minimize the inherent danger instead of tempting fate.
People can also create dangerous situations by feeding wildlife. Not only should animals not be eating food meant for humans, but animals used to being fed will lose their fear of humans. A Colorado woman experienced this firsthand at the beginning of February when she was attacked by a deer that her neighbors were feeding. This deer followed the woman inside her home, began eating food it found inside, and attacked the woman when she tried to scare it outside. The woman suffered minor injuries and advised the responding Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer that the deer would return the next morning to be fed. The officer returned the next morning and not only found the deer in this woman’s yard, but the deer approached the officer too. After identifying the deer as the same one who attacked the woman, the officer had to euthanize it. (17)
People can attract wildlife even without intending to do so at all. Improper trash disposal can attract animals and cause them to equate humans with food. LNT Principle Three: Dispose of Waste Properly addresses the need to responsibly manage garbage. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife office reported on the causes of all 2020 reports of aggressive bears in the state, and the main reason was the bears were attracted by trash. I was surprised that the office received over 300 reports of bears breaking into residences and garages. Not only is this scary, but it’s the main reason for the bears to be euthanized. Last year, Colorado had to euthanize 120 bears. (18)
By feeding or approaching wildlife, animal lovers can accomplish the opposite of what they intend and even break the law. Visitors to the Tennessee State Parks are prohibited from feeding or "intentionally disturbing" wildlife. (19) Those who do so can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor and could be assessed a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per day. (20)
If you are now wondering about whether you should use bird feeders, do some research before you decide. Depending on where you live, there may be times due to disease outbreaks or other animals that you need to remove them. (21) Also, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has an article on what to consider when deciding whether to feed the birds; be sure to check it out.
Taking souvenirs degrades our recreational areas
Fourth, taking souvenirs from natural areas depletes the land of the very things that attract us to it. It is also usually illegal in Tennessee State Parks. Visitors are prohibited from removing “any natural or cultural feature or non-renewable natural resource” or any plant unless the person removing the item has a permit. Taking specimens for scientific study also requires a permit. (22) Visitors are also prohibited from capturing wildlife. (23)
Visitors may take a limited amount of certain items. They may remove “small quantities of pebbles or small rocks by hand for personal use” and may take “for personal use reasonable quantities of natural products of a renewable nature” such as berries. (24)
However, visitors should consider the effect of taking items even if allowed. When one person takes an item from a recreational area, that item cannot be appreciated by other visitors. Taking plants, rocks, or sticks can also contribute to erosion and destroy habitats for animals and insects.
Some might wonder why it’s such a big deal to take just one souvenir; it wouldn’t be that harmful if only one person ever took a piece of a natural area. But how likely is that? Indeed, as Lawhon says, “we are all sharing a finite resource, and there are more and more of us sharing a finite resource. We’re always making more people, but we’re not making more land.” (25)
As more people turn to the outdoors for entertainment, it’s more important than ever that we don’t contribute to the destruction of the land by action or example. If everyone or even most took something after visiting the outdoors, there would be nothing left. Safekeeping our outdoor spaces requires everyone’s participation. The Center has dedicated one of the seven Principles to this duty; LNT Principle Four: Leave What You Find addresses the consequences of stealing from the land.
What do you do when you see someone needlessly spoiling the outdoors?
So what should you do when you see someone violating the Leave No Trace Principles? It’s hard to watch someone damage our natural environment or disregard others’ enjoyment of it. Lawhon recommends that you first decide whether your conversation will likely be a positive one. What will your conversation accomplish? It may be that a park ranger or other law enforcement officer needs to address this behavior. (26)
I will add two other points for you to consider. First, consider your personal safety. You don’t know the person you are thinking of approaching, and you don’t know what they are capable of. Second, you may end up in a confrontation, and you probably came to the outdoors to relax and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. You don’t deserve to have your plans upended by someone who isn’t interested in hearing about the consequences of his actions.
If you decide after considering these points to speak to the visitor, Lawhon notes that it’s important to give reasons why they should change their actions and focus your conversation on the natural resource instead of only citing park rules. If you are talking to family or friends about their activities in our natural areas, Lawhon warns that these conversations could be more difficult than speaking with strangers because it’s easier for them to dismiss you. (27)
It can be hard to stand by while others either intentionally or unknowingly damage the outdoors. These situations might be the ones that stick out, but there are others who are mindful of how they affect the land and others enjoying it. Recently, I was hiking with a group, and at the end of a break, I overheard a father remind his young daughter to take the wrapper from her snack with her. He told her, “When we are outside, we always remember: Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.” Something tells me she’ll remember that for a long time to come.
Interview with Ben Lawhon, LNT Center's Director of Education and Research, January 28, 2021.
Kunc HP, Schmidt R. Species sensitivities to a global pollutant: A meta-analysis on acoustic signals in response to anthropogenic noise. Glob Change Biol. 2021;27:675–688. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.15428