If you have ventured into the wilderness to bask in the beauty of nature or if you have visited a local park to enjoy some time outside, then you are in good company. According to U.S. Census Bureau data for the year 2011, a little over 90 million people over the age of 16 (about 38% of the over-16 U.S. population) participated in outdoor related activities such as hunting, fishing or wildlife watching and even more to the point, 4 million of those people are in Pennsylvania and sharing the same resources as you (94). When you combine those numbers with 2011 National Park Service data stating that there were 278,939,216 recreational visits to national parks, it is easy to see that a massive amount of people are heading to the great outdoors for a little rest and relaxation.
People are drawn to places of outdoor recreation as a means of escaping the negative aspects of high-density living found throughout modern society. Unfortunately, as more people in densely populated areas visit the natural resources in their nearby geographic locations, the problems associated with elevated population levels such as traffic, waste disposal, criminal activities and noise pollution are tagging along for the journey. It’s not that there is a shortage of wilderness in the United States – there are 1.45 million acres of state game land in PA alone (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania 14) – but as you approach more populated regions, the number of outdoor recreational areas rapidly decreases while the amount of people visiting them increases. This puts undo stress on our popular getaway locations and the people who visit them.
Fortunately there is a simple common-sense strategy to combat the overuse of shared outdoor recreational resources. It’s called the “Leave No Trace” program and it has seven key concepts to make the time you spend in a natural setting more enjoyable for you and those who follow in your footsteps.
1) Plan Ahead and Prepare
2) Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
3) Dispose of Waste Properly
4) Leave What You Find
5) Minimize Campfire Impacts
6) Respect Wildlife
7) Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Plan Ahead and Prepare: Being prepared and planning ahead are the best ways to keep out of trouble or emergency situations so taking time to learn about the area you plan to visit and the rules that govern it is always beneficial. Dress appropriately and carry the supplies necessary for whatever adventure you might take. If you think ahead, you are less likely to find yourself in a compromising position like the unfortunate boater who got lost in the middle of the Canadian wilderness and had to chop down four utility poles, disrupting power to hundreds of people, so the power company would investigate and find him (Stranded Man).
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: The reason you should travel on durable surfaces such as trails, rocks, gravel, or dry grasses is pretty easy to understand. When you go off trail, you step on plants which are not trample resistant and the resulting loss of vegetation leads to increased soil erosion and diminished biodiversity. When writing for the Journal of Applied Ecology, David N. Cole of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute determined that some plants such as ferns will suffer a 50% mortality rate after only 20 people walk along a new path (205). To diminish such destruction, it is best to stay on the path, avoid trampling vegetation and camp at approved sites when available.
Dispose of Waste Properly: Improper waste disposal is one of the most noticeable problems plaguing outdoor recreation areas. It doesn’t take an expert to understand how empty water bottles, food wrappers, cigarette butts and dog feces can diminish the experience of someone trying to get away from it all. It is disheartening to see litter left behind; especially by people who have the strength and stamina to carry a full 12 pound case of beer up a mountain but lack the moral character to carry a ½ pound case of empties back down the mountain. If you pack it in, pack it out; it’s that simple.
Leave What You Find: Don’t mess with anything that isn’t yours. Leave the buildings, rocks, trees and bodies of water the way you found them. Don’t take anything that isn’t yours. The only exception being improperly disposed of waste which other less-considerate people have left behind, please pick that up and dispose of it properly. The ultimate goal is to leave nature in its natural state. Don’t create new trails, don’t build a fort, don’t damn a river, don’t paint graffiti on rocks and don’t carve your name in a tree. Just don’t. We need to preserve the natural state of our outdoor resources for many generations to come, so if you find yourself wondering if you should topple a 170 million year old rock formation so it doesn’t fall on unsuspecting Boy Scouts, DON’T DO IT! After Boy Scout leader David Hall faced a massive backlash and multiple death threats for destroying an ancient rock formation in Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park, he had this to say, “There is a right way and wrong way to handle a dangerous situation in the park. And it is not to take it into your own hands. It is to find someone in authority and let them be the one who does it.” (Jonsson)
Minimize Campfire Impacts: It seems as though everyone who spends a night in the woods likes to have a little campfire to warm their spirits. This is fine as long as you only use small hand-breakable pieces of wood found on the ground but you should not chop down a tree or use logs to build a large fire. Limit fires to approved locations in permissible areas and then fully extinguish them when you are done. The best solution is to avoid campfires altogether and use a portable stove for cooking and a flashlight or lantern for illumination.
Respect Wildlife: Catching a glimpse of an eagle, deer, turkey or bear in its natural habitat can be truly awe inspiring. We need to preserve that experience for other outdoor enthusiasts so please do not disturb, approach, chase or feed any wildlife that you encounter. A study lead by Simone Ciuti of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta determined that the behavior of elk in a human-dominated environment, such as a park, is primarily shaped by human activity more so than any other stimulus such as habitat or natural predators (8). Therefore, the less you interact with wild animals, the more natural and successful they will be.
Be Considerate of Other Visitors: When you interact with fellow outdoor enthusiasts, treat them with respect and courtesy. When you encounter other people while you are walking downhill, you should yield to the person or people walking uphill. Do your best to give other visitors space and keep your noise level to a minimum. It’s all just a matter of common courtesy.
And that’s what it’s really all about: common courtesy. You plan ahead so you’re not an inconvenience to others. You travel on durable surfaces to preserve the environment. You properly dispose your waste so the area doesn’t turn into a garbage dump. You leave what you find so it remains for future generations. You minimize campfire impacts for safety and resource conservation. You respect wildlife so the animals prosper. You treat other visitors with consideration and respect because that is how you would want to be treated. You do all of these things as a matter of common courtesy to your fellow man. It is your obligation to treat the land and all creatures on it with dignity and respect. When you step out into the wilderness, you do not become a wild beast; you are still a part of society and you must act accordingly.
“7 Principles.” Illustration. The Leave No Trace Seven Principles. Leave No Trace. 2012. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.
Ciuti, Simone, et al. “Effects Of Humans On Behaviour Of Wildlife Exceed Those Of Natural Predators In A Landscape Of Fear.” Plos ONE 7.11 (2012): 1-13. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Feb. 2015.
Cole, David N. “Experimental Trampling Of Vegetation. I. Relationship Between Trampling Intensity And Vegetation Response.” Journal Of Applied Ecology 32.1 (1995): 203. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Game Commission. “Pennsylvania Game Commission’s 2011 Annual Report.” By Carl G. Roe. Pennsylvania State Game Commission. State of Pennsylvania. 31 Jan. 2012. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.
Jonsson, Patrik. “Utah ‘Goblin’-topplers in big trouble. Did government shutdown play a role?.” Christian Science Monitor 19 Oct. 2013: N.PAG. Newspaper Source. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.
Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. “The Leave No Trace Seven Principles.” Leave No Trace. 2012. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.
“Stranded Man Cuts Power Poles to Draw Attention.” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 31 May 2010. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.
United States. Census Bureau, et al. “2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.” U.S Census Bureau. Department of Commerce. 2012. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.