Leave no trace

We began part two of our RV trip across the country visiting national parks just days after the federal government re-opened following this winter’s budget standoff. During the government closure, the parks remained open but unstaffed. Some park facilities and natural settings were damaged due to the lack of staffing and poor visitor behavior. In particular, several news reports described how Joshua Tree National Park in southwest California was badly damaged and trashed, including the uprooting of ancient 1000-year- old Joshua trees and other habitat as people drove vehicles off road, tearing up the desert landscapes.

When we visited Joshua Tree in early spring, we did not see any damage. For the most part, our experience, both before and after the government closure, is that most visitors and hikers to the parks are respectful of the landscape and of other hikers. And, park rangers, staff, and volunteers do an effective job of preserving the parks for future generations and keeping the parks clean.

I credit this positive behavior, in part, to the “Leave No Trace Seven Principles.”

These principles are often posted at trailheads or highly trafficked areas in parks. They were developed by an organization of outdoor enthusiasts as a way to minimize the impacts of human use of our nation’s recreational areas and as a way to preserve them for future generations and for ecological and historical study.

The seven principles are: Plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surface, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, and be considerate of other visitors.

I admit that I have been frustrated on several occasions when these principles are ignored by my fellow travelers.

I fumed as I pulled soiled toilet paper from our dog Iggy’s mouth at the top of Mt. Picacho, a summit located outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. I shook my head in judgement as I bagged a half-eaten apple that a hiker discarded along a trail in Saguaro National Park East in Tuscan, Arizona. I nearly vomited as I attempted to retrieve a pair of women’s shorts that someone discarded along the Lighthouse Trail in Palo Duro Canyon State Park on the outskirts of Amarillo, Texas when I discovered that they had human feces inside them!

Thankfully, our direct experiences have only been with minor infractions, but these do build up over time. Just think what would happen if every one of the more than 11 million people who visit the Smoky Mountain National Park each year took a rock away with them? Eventually, there would be little left for others to enjoy. But we’ve seen the greater impact of larger infractions. In her book “Ranger Confidential,” Andrea Lankford details how behaviors threaten the lives of park rangers as well as fellow travelers. Failure to prepare, to camp on durable surfaces, to respect wildlife, and to control fires have led to many deaths and massive destruction of lands.

Most recently as we hiked a trail in Olympic National Park - home to one of the largest old growth forests in the country as well as home to at least 14 animal species found nowhere else in the world, including the Olympic marmot, Olympic snow mole and Olympic torrent salamander - I reflected on the “Leave No Trace Seven Principles.” I was overwhelmed by the foresight of those who came before us, like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, who recognized the beauty of some of our natural resources and worked to preserve the lands for all to see and enjoy. And I am encouraged by those who care for them today.

As I hiked through the pristine forest, it dawned on me that these principles can be boiled down to two simple rules: be courteous and be respectful. They can be applied beyond how we treat our government lands to how we treat our community parks and public spaces. They can be applied to how we treat our friends, co-workers, spouses, parents and kids.

Wouldn’t our personal environments and relationships be better if we planned ahead, built our relationships on strong foundations, didn’t leave messes, left things the way we found them, were careful with fire, respected wildlife, and were considerate of others?

“Dispatches from the RV” documents the traveling adventures of Daniel Island News Publisher Suzanne Detar and her husband, Tom Werner, who are currently exploring the country in a motorhome. Last fall, they hit the road to take in an inner loop of the USA, and this year they are focusing on an outer loop, including America’s national parks and all the concurrent and surprising sites along the way.

Leave No Trace Seven Principles © 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org.

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