Op-Ed: Why Now—More than Ever—We Must Live by Leave No Trace

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In a time when more and more people are embracing outdoor recreation, here's how to combat the destruction of the wild places we love.

Last year, for the centennial of the National Park Service, park visits were up by over 25 million across the nation. Yosemite traffic increased by 21 percent year over year—up almost a million people from 2015. Zion saw more than 17 percent more visitors. Joshua Tree? Up by over 23 percent. In theory, more people who share a passion for the outdoors can increase the proponents of conservation, preservation and stewardship.

But as numbers increase and accessibility becomes easier, as the culture of conquering, peak bagging and “accomplishment athleticism” becomes the norm, care, consideration and a commitment to Leave No Trace (LNT) practices grow more vital than ever.

Education Director for the LNT Center for Outdoor Ethics Ben Lawhon painted a pretty good picture of the scenario when asked about the increasing pressures on the system. “There is no silver bullet here,” he said. “We find ourselves in a much more challenging environment for education.”

And yet they continue to fight the good fight. Education vs. regulation is the way LNT looks at it, knowing full well that there is a wide spectrum of knowledge and practice in the outdoors. “The hope,” said Lawhon, "is that the positive net effect of every hiker doing just one [selfless] thing can have huge results.”  

One major problem in high-traffic areas: human waste. In my backyard in the Adirondacks, the human pressure on certain trails has prompted the NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to put port-o-toilets at the parking areas in an attempt to stem the overwhelming volume of human waste found at the trailheads.

"Explore and find new experiences at lower elevations and all will benefit.”

But the biggest threat still comes in the season of mud—those early spring months when snowmelt softens the ground, making trails vulnerable to footprints and damage. Despite the requests from the DEC, the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK)—and next door in Vermont and New Hampshire from the Green Mountain Club (GMC) and the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC)—hikers ignore the warnings, post-their selfies and fulfill their desires to get on with personal goals of summits. “Hikers in mud season are doing a disproportionate amount of serious damage whether they choose to acknowledge it or not,” says Neil Woodworth, Executive Director of the ADK. “Hiking in mud season dislodges soil and rocks that are thin already, allowing more water to flow and run-out to occur. Mud avoidance is even worse, it crushes young vegetation, widening the mud holes. ”

The solution? “If people really care about preserving this mountain experience, they’ll just stay home or at least stay out of the high elevations, for a few short weeks. Explore and find new experiences at lower elevations and all will benefit.”

And Neil is not just pushing doctrine. He himself is a 46er (#2036) who finished climbing all 46 high peaks in New York State’s Adirondack Park in 1984, so he understands the drive to complete the challenge. But it’s worth noting that in 1984, 133 people completed the 46er challenge. Last year, it had ballooned to 712. “Nowadays there are people completing it two or three times a year,” he said. “Folks hiking Giant Mountain seven times in a season—that’s overkill, and it’s bad for the mountains.”

Llloyd Athearn, Executive Director of the “14er’s” (the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative) and former Deputy Director of the American Alpine Club, faces a different challenge. Mud season for him is really about skiers hiking to get to the late season snow in the highest altitudes, often trampling vegetation or creating shortcuts to get there. “We work with the Forest Service to create a series of large cairns to keep people on track. But the bigger challenge for Colorado,” says Lawton, "is the pure volume. Colorado has seen huge in-migration of outdoor enthusiasts in the past few years. The new residents and visitors want to tick off the peaks. (It’s not uncommon to find someone in sneakers hiking 14,433-foot Mt. Elbert.) But many are used to recreating in far more resilient ecosystems. We hope that, with time, it becomes a case of consuming evolving into preserving.”

The Solution

As a hiker, how can you make your mark and yet leave no trace? Mike Debonis, Executive Director of the Green Mountain Club, which maintains Vermont's 272-mile Long Trail, which stretches from the Massachusetts line to the Canadian border, hopes that education and awareness can overcome the need for restrictions. “We tried publishing firm 'open season' dates, but then you get a dry winter and a light mud season and people get upset. So in the end, we partnered with the state and the Forest Service and landowners to provide consistent messaging. Hikers are good mentors. We have faith in the users but, that said, it remains a challenge.” 

LNT’s Lawhon acknowledged the fact that our busy world sets up the conflict. “Hey, I’m on vacation.” “I only have three months to accomplish my goal.” “The weather is great right now.” These comments frequently pop up from hikers who are out in the mud after a storm or disregarding the seasonal request to stay put. The unfortunate reality is that for many it is difficult to find a balance between passion and respect.

“We’re making more people but we’re not making more land.”

One solution, which Woodworth believes may become a distinct possibility in the ADKs, is a permitting system. Lawhon pointed to Mount Rainier, the Colorado River, Everest and even Mt. Whitney, where the traffic has already forced lottery and permitting systems, further noting that on Whitney, they have actually removed the privies and require hikers to pack out their own human waste. Lawhon spoke of land managers creating “sacrifice areas," such as a specific trail or campground to direct hikers toward in an effort to keep the numbers down on the more sensitive areas.

“Old timers will note that a certain trail was not 50 feet wide 10 years ago, but the frame of reference for most hikers is very limited,” said Lawton. “We’re making more people but we’re not making more land.” It is a sad reality but in some cases, regulation may become the only way to preserve the resource. Hopefully, as challenges increase, all who are passionate for peaks will also become passionate for their preservation.

How to Reduce Your Impact

By sticking to these simple practices, you can help decrease your impact on the trails you hike.

Pack Out Trash (Yes, Even Your Orange Peels)

"Orange trees along with oranges aren't something we typically see out on the trail. For this reason, we should always pack out the peels. Did you know that when left in nature, they turn into a crisp and can last up to two years? Could you imagine if every person out on the trail left their peels behind? Our favorite places can easily turn into an eye sore. Help to Leave No Trace by packing out anything you pack in with you."

Burn Local Wood

"Did you know that purchasing firewood locally can help to stop the spread of invasive species like the emerald ash borer?"

Extinguish Your Fire Completely

"Thanks to everyone who practices leave no trace by leaving a clean camp and a dead fire at the end of your visit."


Stay on the Trails

"To play on Robert Frost, 'Two paths diverged in the woods, and I—I took the one most traveled, and it has made a positive difference.' We recommend walking through puddles and mud rather than going around them to avoid widening the path or creating braided trails like the one being rehabilitated here."

And Keep Your Dog on the Trails, Too

"10 out of 10 dogs agree - staying on the trail with their human is just as fun as romping through an alpine meadow. While this beautiful pup makes for a pretty picture, she is not only walking through sensitive alpine vegetation, but also disturbing local wildlife like the marmot, pika, ptarmigan and dipper, who call this area home, and who have a very small window for gathering food, breeding and nesting."

Move Your Tent Every Night in the Alpine

"In high alpine area, it can be hard to find a camping spot free of vegetation. To protect these sensitive plants and flowers, move your tent each night of your stay so they can still get sunlight. Reserve the most durable surface for your camp kitchen, since that's where the most trampling occurs. Then, enjoy the view!"

Learn more about best LNT practices here.

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