Plan ahead and prepare. Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Dispose of waste properly. Leave what you find. Minimize campfire impacts. Respect wildlife. Be considerate of other visitors. These are the seven principles of Leave No Trace outdoor ethics. Pretty simple concepts, right? Then why are we having so many issues with people not following these tenets? How do we encourage them to adopt better practices? This is what we discussed during a two-day Leave No Trace trainer course over the weekend.

6 AM Saturday morning found three bleary-eyed interns, Maria (Student Conservation Association), Daniel (Latino Heritage Internship Program), and me, piling into my car along with all our frontcountry camping gear for the hour drive from Great Smoky Mountains Park Headquarters in Tennessee to Big Creek Horse Camp on the North Carolina side of the park where the course was being held. After securing a campsite and setting up our tents, we joined our fellow classmates and instructors to begin our journey towards becoming certified teachers of Leave No Trace.

Once introductions were complete, we jumped into a discussion of what it means to be an “ethic.” It’s not a rule or regulation. It’s about respect, good habits, responsibility, morals, lifestyle, culture, and doing the right thing whether someone is watching or not. It’s something you carry with you no matter where you go. Sometimes following an ethic isn’t the easiest thing to do. It’s about choices and being aware of your impact. Negative impacts can be avoided with good planning, and, if not, they can at least be minimized.

Learning how to use ropes to make high lines for horses and store food safely.

We learned that the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics was established in 1994, but efforts started decades before. Travel boomed in the 1960’s with improved infrastructure and recreational equipment. With visitor use on the rise, large impacts became apparent in our National Parks and other public lands. Concern that these places were being “loved to death” led to the passing of legislation like the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the advent of the U.S. Forest Service “Smokey Bear” campaign and others.

Some challenges we face as advocates of Leave No Trace are that budgets and staff sizes are decreasing while the number of visitors continues to rise. Demographics are also changing with ever more people living in urban areas. The ultimate challenge, however, is the ubiquitous “me, mine, now” attitude. This pervasive philosophy goes right against our mission to preserve and protect natural and historical resources unimpaired for future generations! What are we to do?! It’s not like we can grab people and smack them upside the head whenever they litter, pick a flower, or get too close to an animal!

The answer: Educate! Inspire! Connect! Telling someone they can’t do this or need to do that isn’t enough. It’s imperative they understand why. People are also much more likely to practice stewardship if they feel a personal connection to a place. We need to help people make those discoveries! In doing so, we have to be sensitive to the fact that people learn in a myriad of ways – seeing, hearing, reading, touching, doing. Not only should we be able to teach in formal settings, but also be able to take advantage of quick, spontaneous “teachable” moments.

Since education is so vital to the success of Leave No Trace, we became the instructors during the second day of our training. Each of us was assigned one of the seven principles to present on for five or so minutes. I drew “Leave what you find” focusing on removal. I did an activity with the National Park Service mission where I had the group pick out what they thought were the most important words. Preserve. Future generations. Enjoyment. Protect. Education.

“In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.” ~ Phil Collins.

Those words in mind, I moved into another activity where I had everyone gather on the campground’s gravel road. I had one person pick up a single piece of gravel and asked if they could tell the difference. Nope! Then I had everyone do it and asked if it was noticeable. Not really! After, I asked them what would happen if every person who visited the park, 11 million people a year, took a piece of gravel home. The road would be gone!

With that visualization, I related the activity back to the NPS mission and the removal of other resources like artifacts, plants, and animals – especially those endemic to the park. I asserted that if you remove something from the park, it may not seem like a big deal, but if everyone starts doing it, we could lose that resource! We have to overcome that “me, mine, now” attitude and transform it into “ours.” After all, the National Parks don’t belong to any one person, they belong to all of us!

I am very thankful to have been given the opportunity to attend this course. It certainly helped me grow personally and professionally. And, if we’re being completely honest, physically as well. That’s what happens when there’s a thirteen-person potluck dinner and five pies show up! We had a lot of fun not only learning Leave No Trace, but implementing it as well as we camped out, cooked, swam, and hiked during the class.

Practice what you preach! Looking for litter to pick up around the campground.

Whether you have the chance to become a certified trainer in the near future or not (I sincerely hope you do), I challenge you to learn the principles now and share that knowledge with others! The resources, the Earth, give us the authority to educate others on the importance of respecting each other, flora and fauna, and the planet. After all, that’s what it really boils down to.