Standing atop Macomb’s slide, I was expecting to bask in the glory of New York’s Forest Preserve. With a sprawling vista to the west and an island-speckled Elk Lake below it’s a sight to behold. Perhaps you’ve even been here? My inspiration was diminished, however, by a negative social impact that impinged upon the wilderness experience. A conspicuous pile of unburied, soiled toilet paper at the top of this majestic spot signaled an immediate end to the intangible qualities that brought me into the woods that day. Feelings of tranquility, solitude, and remoteness were vanquished as I grasped my trowel. “If not you, who?” I asked myself rhetorically. Admittedly frustrated, I dug a minor excavation with my trowel and buried someone else’s waste off-trail.
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting about outdoor ethics in recent years. What’s the best way to influence others to become stewards of our cherished public lands? Regulations can be frustrating, but I understand their role in preserving a popular resource. Educational outreach takes time and money, both precious commodities for any organization. But what about simply raising public awareness about Leave No Trace? Ethics, or a set of guiding principles, can’t be handed to someone on a silver platter. People learn outdoor ethics best by having a positive experience in a beautiful place while simultaneously discovering how the world works. This emotional connection, combined with learning certain skills and techniques, helps outdoor users to do the right thing – develop an outdoor ethic that they will carry with them for a long time.
With mud from the Dix Range trip still fresh on my boots, I continued to contemplate ethics on the car ride to western New York. ADK (Adirondack Mountain Club) was invited to welcome the public as a new REI store opened in Rochester, NY, and I was eager to participate in the spectacle. Along with volunteers from ADK’s Genesee Valley Chapter and other ADK professional staff, I greeted the excited crowd at this lively community night and challenged them to contemplate their own outdoor ethic.
Prominently situated beside our table was a display board depicting common situations encountered in the Great Outdoors. You’ve probably come across one, or maybe all six of these undesirable scenarios yourself this past summer. “Which natural resource impact bothers you the most?” I asked hundreds of times to the hordes of outdoor enthusiasts walking by. What I hoped to generate at REI’s inaugural Community Night was a discussion about responsible recreation among the attendees. As the personal opinions flooded in, I tallied and recorded the results. Some people volunteered their visceral reactions to these images willingly:
“I’ve noticed an unfortunate amount of human waste along the trail this year.”
“Carving your name into a tree – that really irks me because it’s a long-lasting, visible scar.”
“If you pick that pink lady’s slipper or painted trillium the next person won’t get to enjoy it!”
Not everyone was quick to respond, however. Most people had to grapple with two or three options before reluctantly coming to their final, least-desirable conclusion:
“Even though a dog off leash may scare wildlife, I’m even more worried about the habituation of animals when they get access to human food.”
“I just can’t decide! Each leads to a negative outcome!”
The Rochesterian responses were thoughtful, passionate, and diverse. In the end, “Trash Left By Campers,” elicited the highest response rate. I left the event with a strong conviction that raising Leave No Trace awareness could translate into positive outdoor behavior. As a reminder, here are the seven Leave No Trace principles that help us preserve the quality of the resource:
- Plan Ahead & Prepare
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Returning to the Adirondacks, I was excited to put my theory into action. I had the opportunity to give a Leave No Trace Awareness talk during a school assembly at my alma mater in Old Forge, NY. I spoke with the students about how rare vast protected areas like the Adirondack Park are, and emphasized that we all share the common ground of living inside a beautiful Park. Following the assembly I joined the students on their outdoor field trip up Bald Mountain. We spent the afternoon picking up all of the trash from trailhead to summit, leaving the mountain better than we found it!
The implementation and dissemination of Leave No Trace best practices can be a very effective strategy to help encourage the protection of our wild lands and waters. I hope you’ll share the power of Leave No Trace with others as you enjoy your outdoor world. Whether it’s at your local park or deep in the wilderness atop Macomb’s slide, your Leave No Trace ethic really can make a difference for the next visitor. Because if not you, who?
Outdoor Skills Coordinator