Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.” While this statement makes a case for the urgency of being conservation minded and practicing good stewardship, President Roosevelt had no way of knowing just how important this would become in our time over 100 years later. We live in a time when outdoor recreation is exploding, which is of course a good thing. However, it does not come without its problems. According to a 2016 report by the Outdoor Foundation, 142.4 million Americans participated in at least one outdoor recreational activity in 2015. This is nearly half the population of the country! When multiple outings are accounted for, the number of user days in the outdoors becomes staggering: 11.7 billion! This is as if every person on earth and then half again as many went camping, hiking, paddling, climbing, or participated in any number of other outdoor activities during a single year. In short, while the growth in outdoor recreation is a wonderful thing to see, it exposes the danger of loving our public lands to death. Think of the impact all these visitations have on the places we love and cherish!
Anyone who has spent time outdoors has seen human impacts on nature including anything from scattered trash and highly eroded trails to vandalized rock art and carved aspens. Certainly these are things that we would rather not see or have to deal with in the outdoors, but as visitation grows, so does our impact on the places we love. Most impacts are actually not because of malicious acts (a few are); instead, they happen simply because people are not properly educated about the effects their actions have on the natural world and the experience of others.
One unfortunate consequence of our uninformed (or sometimes malicious) activities in the outdoors can be the creation of restrictive regulations or the closure of areas we love. When enough people make poor decisions like this, often times management agencies have no choice but to make these kinds of unpopular decisions.
So what are we to do if we wish to continue recreating outdoors and also protect our world’s stunning natural beauty? Well, the best answer is to educate ourselves and practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace, which are:
Many people have asked themselves if what they do in the outdoors really has that much of an impact. The answer is actually both yes and no. If you decide to walk through a pristine meadow by yourself and nobody ever does it again, then really there isn’t a whole lot of impact that occurs. The problem arises when you, and the next 10 people, and the next 100 people, day after day, year after year, decide to do exactly the same thing. Before long, instead of a pristine meadow, a wide trail or a muddy field is the result. It’s not like it was a coordinated effort to create this impact, but because many people made the same uninformed decision at an individual level, a cumulative impact was created. The principles of Leave No Trace are guidelines to help us make better decisions as individuals in the outdoors so that the activities we enjoy can be sustained and the large-scale impacts we create can be reduced or eliminated. Imagine if everyone who recreated outdoors was educated in Leave No Trace and committed to practicing its principles. The need for restrictive regulations and closures would be practically nonexistent.
While greater visitation does lead to greater impacts, it can also have a very positive effect. Many of us recreate outdoors because we love the astounding natural beauties our world has to offer and we care about their fate. The more time we spend outside, the more we come to realize the truth in what Edward Abbey said: “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.” It is hard to truly care about the special places in nature until we have experienced their awesome power first hand. Only then do they become meaningful in a personal way, and once we have experienced that power, we begin to care. And so, while more and more people recreate outdoors each year, increasing the likelihood of greater impact, more and more people are also exposed to the humbling and healing power of nature. With proper education in and practice of the principles of Leave No Trace, all these visitors have the potential to become advocates for the conservation and stewardship of our magnificent natural wonders.
To read more about the importance of Leave No Trace, check out the following articles:
Matthew Durrant is an Outdoor Project Contributor, an active volunteer as a Leave No Trace Master Educator, and the Outdoor Ethics Advocate for the Great Salt Lake council, BSA.
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