Leave No Trace: Promoting a Collective Conscience

At a time when our National Parks are starving for resources, many look to non-profit programs like Leave No Trace to fill in the gaps. But the dangers facing our national parks today can’t be solved by politely asking people to remember to pick up their trash. We need a more aggressive solution. While promoting LNT’s revered 7 core principles, we need to add an 8th. It’s time to get proactive, grab responsibility by the horns and revive our rapidly degrading natural spaces.

According to a report by the National Parks Conservation Association, “In 2011, funding for the National Park Service was reduced by nearly $140 million, including an $11.5 million reduction for operations.” The results are pretty easy to predict: less money for operations means less staff to manage the same amount of visitors. That means there’s going to be more trash.

Leave No Trace was started in the 1960s by the U.S. Forest Service. Back then, it was simply known as the “No-Trace” program. Over time, it evolved and began incorporating partnerships with organizations like the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). LNT educates thousands on how to enjoy the outdoors, while minimizing their impact on the environment through 7 core principles: Plan Ahead and Prepare, Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces, Dispose of Waste Properly, Leave What You Find, Minimize Campfire Impacts, Respect Wildlife, and Be Considerate of Other Visitors. The ideas are passed on to us through educational programs, funded by Leave No Trace and in partnership with strategic outdoors sponsors.

“Leave No Trace is all about education. Its founders realized that simple rules and regulations were not going to change behavior, that education was the key.” That’s Dave Winter, strategic partnerships and outreach manager at LNT. Currently, LNT is focusing on educating users of front-country areas specifically (front-country meaning areas accessible by cars and short day hikes).

LNT’s ethics are symbolic of the utopian outdoors that all of us would like to be a part of. Unfortunately, when you really start to think about, LNT starts to fall short. Think about it; they propose that recreational users should literally leave no trace. At its best, with 100% participation, the result is an environment which is exactly as it is today, never getting worse, but also never getting better. But everyone knows that absolute participation is completely unrealistic, so at its plausible best, LNT can only retard the rate of environmental degradation.

It postpones the inevitable. LNT’s program needs a boost, it needs an 8th principle. The solution starts with LNT’s 7 core principles, but we can do better. We need a symbolic 8th core principle: Practice Proactive Responsibility.

“That’s a focus for us moving forward,” said Winters. If you’re going to promote something, you might as well promote pro-active behavior. True stewards of the environment should not only take responsibility for their own actions, but also curb the impacts of their fellow hikers, campers, bikers, kayakers, picnickers and so on.

And just when you think that LNT isn’t cutting it, you realize they are. LNT estimates “over 85% who have been taught Leave No Trace principles are likely to practice what they’ve learned. Once they learn it, it’s in their conscience.” It turns outdoor enthusiasts into proactive stewards of the environment.

While Leave No Trace’s principles do not specifically address taking care of the shortfalls of others, such responsible behavior is certainly implied; we just need to get more aggressive with the implementation.

By Patrick Hutchison