By Centennial Volunteer Ambassador Kendall Gilbert, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Georgia | Tennessee

The gold standard of Leave No Trace ethics goes a little like this: “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints”.

The saying was, and is an effective and simple way to remind people that the natural world is an organic living room that has rules, not too different maybe from the plastic covered sofas in your grandma’s parlor. While trails and woods and campsites and the backcountry might provide a temporary living space for outdoor enthusiasts, they are fragile ecosystems still trying to grow accustomed to the domineering pursuits of humankind.

TNBP/LNBF reminds us not to litter. Not to leave piles of our waste laying around for someone else to step in. Not to pick precious wildflowers that feed pollinators, or take home cute forest creatures. To pack out our beer cans and brush over our fires. To make it so like we were never there at all.

The saying is credited to the Baltimore Grotto Caving Society, founded in 1952 out of Maryland and “dedicated to the exploration, study and conservation of caves”. I am not sure when this became their adventure motto, but my guess was it was long before the digital camera, cell phone, the smart phone, and the selfie stick ever entered our cognitive periphery and forever changed the way we interact with the world.

Unfortunately, what the saying did not anticipate was how literally the suggestion “take nothing but photos” would become.  And it turns out, people’s habit of taking nothing but photos is actually taking a toll on wildlife, natural landscapes, and the entire experience of experiencing nature, leaving us with far too many people who lack ecological literacy.

Take these examples, for instance:

Bear Selfies

Bear Selfie

Bear Selfie 1

27 Sep 2010, Katmai National Park, Alaska, USA --- Photographer and Brown Bear, Katmai National Park, Alaska --- Image by © Paul Souders/Corbis

People take bear selfies for a number of reasons. None of them are built around a fundamental understanding of how powerful and dangerous these animals are, nor around sanity. They showcase adventure, free spiritedness, and mostly carelessness. Our response to humans who intrude upon the daily habits of a bear is to “Like” their status and “Heart” their photo. Our response to bears who intrude on the travel habits of humans is to kill them.

The most important lesson you can learn about being around bears is that not even an X-Pro III filter can save you from instinct. Whereas professional photographers used to have to respect natural boundaries because of the limitations of their equipment, now even beanie-capped @CoconutChanel (featured above) can snap a close up with ole’ ursidae

The Lesson: You should never be this close to a bear in the wild. If you are, you should be actively reviewing bear safety protocols and taking steps to get back to a safe distance. I made the stupid mistake of wanting to take a photo with a mama bear and her three clumsy cubs while at a cabin in the Great Smokey Mountains this summer. I was quickly deterred by people who had an actual understanding of how dangerous it was to be close to a hungry mama bear and her cubs. The world is not a zoo. If you want to take exciting close range wildlife photography, consider becoming an ecologist. The world needs more Aldo Leopolds, Wendell Berrys and Rachel Carsons.

Ecotourism Voyeurism


Walter Palmer (famed Cecil the Lion hunter) isn’t the only one to exploit important species for personal gain. “Ecotourism” is a trendy term used to lure travelers to posh destinations usually in “up and coming” countries while promising them lush landscapes, all natural bathroom soaps, authentic cuisine, exciting zip line tours, and optimal photogenic moments via off-road excursions. What ecotourism doesn’t always do well is remind its visitors that in order to preserve and protect the places that become ecotourism-worthy, you have to respect the boundary where ecotourism ends and real ecological processes begin.

Ostional Beach, which lies within the nationally-protected Tempisque Conservation Area, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast made international news this summer, as swarms of tourists descended upon the beach to engage with and take pictures of the threatened olive ridley sea turtles laying eggs. It was reported that “hundreds of tourists stood in the way of the turtles”, prompting many turtles to leave the beach without laying any eggs. The tourists got their fantastic pictures, probably without realizing that the population of olive ridleys are in decline, and their ability to successfully reproduce is critical to their survival as a species.

The Lesson: If you want to watch the breeding, nesting, or other intimate habits and behaviors of animals, or marvel at fascinating things without negatively impacting the environment, check out the incredible documentary series, Nature on PBS.

GearPorn, Cairns, and Night Photography

The backcountry is having its day in the sun. Different from the Coleman car-camping era of the Baby Boomers, and aside from mega-glamping, outdoor enthusiasts in the millennium are increasingly carrying everything they need for a few days, or a week, or a full thru-hike on their back and heading into the wilderness.  But not without their smartphones, GoPros, and of course the latest hashtags in adventure tourism. And with those hashtags come all of the hashtag- worthy photo opportunities. Tents pitched in the most idyllic (and perhaps unregulated) camping spots, beach fires (possibly illegal) blazing into the night under a starry sky all lit up by the flash of cell phones, and cairns (annoyingly) delicately built as temples to physics and gravity.


#getoutside #getoutdoors 


#cairn #glacier #norway



While these photo worthy moments will attract Instagram followers, they are setting a bad standard for how the outdoor enthusiast crowd treats the natural environment, even if only a little at a time. These trends take nature’s biggest advocates and make them her growing adversaries. Designated camping areas are meant to minimize human impact in ecologically sensitive areas. This is why you are encouraged to pitch a tent within a safe distance from rock ledges, water sources, and riverbanks. Introducing artificial light from a cell phone to capture night-time photography can impact the naturally occurring rhythms of wildlife. As for cairns, well some would value the artistic merit of such stacks, but I think the idea of being outside is to enjoynaturally occurring phenomena.

The Lesson: The world is a beautiful place indeed. It is worthy of admiration and attention. But more importantly, the world is a living thing. Your photos can be a reflection of that, rather than an affront to it. Mind your manners.

Instagram grew from 200 to 300 million users since August 2014. Photo filters have gotten sexier. The new Iphone 6 features an 8-megapixel iSight camera with 1.5µ pixels. I don’t know what that means but I am sure it is exciting to the megapixel crowd. Quality photography for the layman is not going away. Nor is consumerism and narcissism, which I believe are being intimately sold together in such an interesting and accelerated way that consumer-targeted electronic technology feels more like it is fanning an addiction rather than creating a useful tool.

It could be narcissism that is driving the “take nothing but pictures” phenomena, but it also could be human nature. After all, we aren’t so original. People have always been eager to showcase their interactions with nature. The very first cave paintings from over 40,000 years ago were perhaps the first Instagram post and cairn all tied into one. From the hand prints to the thematic hunt scenes, they are a reflection of human life, a testament that says “we were here, we lived, and this part of living defined us”.

Here is the reality. I am a part of it, of all this, and trust me I loathe it. A combination of timing (born in 1989) and personality (10/10 on the hammed-up extroversion scale), paired with a lifelong love of nature and the outdoors renders me a perfect candidate for this paradox of behaviors.  As I grow up and continue to have possession of a smart phone, it is only realistic to expect that the great outdoors will be a major feature of what I put out on social media. Making me susceptible to the follies of environmental insensitivity for the sake of “taking nothing but pictures”. This coupled with a job with the National Park Service, who is working hard to utilize social media to attract a younger constituency, makes it even harder for me to pull away. Before I moved to Tennessee/Georgia for this job, I thought I would take a break from social media for a while. Then I realized that to get people excited about public land, nature, and national parks, you had to meet them where they were at, and where they are at is online.

The older I get, the more jaded I become when I am outdoors. It’s true, and I can feel it. It is harder for me to sit and be still. Harder to search the sky for birds. Harder to feel the breath of wind and hear the smallthings. My senses which were once fully amped outside have dimmed. I grow weary when I arrive to a beautiful spot in the woods only to see people standing behind the screen of the phone. More and more, I get a seasick feeling in my stomach when I start to realize that there is a closing distance between my observation of something and my desire to capture it. That euphoric feeling I had as a child and was lucky enough to have all the way up into my early 20’s when I was out in the woods which would last for hours has been reduced to fragments. It’s punctuated by trying to create meaning of what I see. And even though my mindful voice tells me to feel first and process later, the storyteller in me doesn’t want to miss out.

I try to leave my phone in the car when I go wandering in the same way that I try to remember to bring bags for when my dog scats on a trail.  Not that I won’t take any more outdoor photos, and not that I wouldn’t want you to either. I like nature photos. I prefer them wholeheartedly to cat photos and baby photos and dinner photos and photos of people’s purses. It’s just that I am trying to relearn how to take more than pictures.

If you’re like me, maybe you prefer the saying below instead by Chief Seattle. It is timeless, it is human, and it is enough to fully validate your wonderful adventures and experiences wherever you are:

“Take only memories, leave only footprints”. 

Happy trails to you. To the waters and the wild.