Back in June, vandals defaced one of Capitol Reef National Park’s beautiful red rock monoliths. A large drawing of an eye, along with several letters were scratched into the rock, covering an area that was more than 27 inches wide and 17 inches tall. It’s far from the only graffiti left in the park this year. And it probably won’t be the last.
The unfortunate truth is that tourists always leave their mark on the parks they visit. Whether they do so through vandalism or unknowingly, by damaging trails or building campfires in the wrong place, the damage is done.
Luckily, there are things you can do to lessen the damage you do to our beautiful natural resources. Keep reading to learn what you need to know about Leave No Trace, and how it’s helping protect our national parks.
The Origins of Leave No Trace
National parks across the country have seen a steady increase in visitation for decades. Recently, those numbers have spiked even more, thanks in part to the 2017 solar eclipse and the 2016 centennial celebration of the National Park Service.
With an increase in visitation came an increase in damage being done to the parks. From graffiti to trails overrun by too many hikers to garbage strewn throughout the park, the more people entering the parks, the worse the damage is.
The National Park Service is caught in the middle. While they want to encourage visitors to come enjoy the natural spaces that have been set aside for exactly that purpose, they also want to protect them for future generations.
Leave No Trace was developed for exactly that reason. Leave No Trace is an educational program that aims to inform visitors on how they can enjoy the parks while also protecting them.
Prior Conservation Education Efforts
Leave No Trace is far from the first attempt by the National Park Service to reduce the negative impact of tourism on the parks. When hiking and other outdoor recreation started growing in popularity in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, various groups sought to minimize degradation of trails and campgrounds in national parks across the country.
The U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service all released brochures around this time that offered advice on how to behave in the wilderness, how to camp without damaging nature, and how to otherwise protect trails and natural areas.
While these measures likely did help to reduce damage, they were largely independent of one another and not well organized. This meant that their affect wasn’t widely spread, instead working in localized areas where the brochures were being released.
Leave No Trace Changes the Conservation Game
In 1990, issues with a lack of cohesive conservation education efforts led park officials to finally come together to create a committee to discuss a national program. In just a few short years, the Leave No Trace program emerged.
This early version of the program looked a bit different from what we know today. Rather than a core set of guidelines at its center, the original program focused on a core set of goals. These goals highlighted what park officials were hoping to teach visitors to the parks. They included:
- Backcountry Trip Planning and Preparation
- Concentrate Impacts in High Use Areas
- Spread Use and Impact in Pristine Areas
- Avoid Places Where Impact is Just Beginning
- Pack it in, Pack it out
- Properly Dispose of What You Cannot Pack Out
- Leave What You Find
- Campfire Building in the Backcountry
Leave No Trace Today
At its heart, Leave No Trace hasn’t changed since it was first begun in the early 1990s. Its goal is still to educate the public, teaching ways to conserve our natural resources and protect our national parks from damage while still enjoying their beauty.
However, the program has changed in other ways. One big change was to its core principles. Rather than simply listing the areas that the program focuses on, it now includes 7 principles that park guests can follow. These include:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Practicing Leave No Trace
The principles of Leave No Trace makes it easy to understand what every individual visitor to the parks can do to take care of the parks they visit.
Plan Ahead and Prepare
To plan ahead and prepare means to do thorough planning ahead of time. You should be aware of the risks you might face during your trip and what you can do to stay safe. You are also responsible for keeping your trip as safe as possible by minimizing risks.
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Traveling and camping on durable surfaces helps to prevent damage to native flora and fauna. Whether you’re setting up a tent in the backcountry or just taking a hike, know where you are and aren’t supposed to be.
Dispose of Waste Properly
Disposing of waste properly is an updated version of one of the original principles; Pack it in, pack it out. It’s likely that the change came as a result of increased garbage disposal in the parks. From plastic wrappers to apple cores, anything you bring into the park needs to be properly disposed of or packed out.
Leave What You Find
Leave what you find is a gentle reminder that taking things out of the park, no matter how useless they may seem, is harmful to the environment. Even small rocks can house insects and other tiny critters. Take only photos and leave only footprints
Minimizing campfire impacts is easy; never build a fire in a non-designated area. Not sure where those areas are? Ask a ranger to be sure.
Respecting wildlife is a principle that a group of visitors to Yellowstone National Park clearly overlooked. They chose to approach, and possibly touch, a bison, and a young girl was injured as a result. Keep your distance and never try to feed or touch any wildlife in the parks.
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Being considerate of other visitors means camping and hiking in small groups to prevent crowding, staying quiet and respectful so that everyone can enjoy nature, and avoiding anything that might disturb other visitors’ enjoyment of the parks.
Following the principles of Leave No Trace largely comes down to common sense. While it may seem like your individual actions can’t possibly matter, if every one of the hundreds of thousands of visitors to Capitol Reef thought the same way, the park would quickly be destroyed. Doing your part to protect our parks is important for every guest. To learn other ways you can do your part and avoid standing out as a “tourist,” check out these tips next.