I’m not the first to complain about the increased crowds flocking to state and national parks this summer. Trust me – I get it. We’re confined and seeking a bit of relief from the chaos surrounding us.
Spending time in nature sustains my spirit, but it also robs me of my faith in humanity. Small, senseless acts are not committed solely by the people hiking on the trails or camping for the first time, so I’m not going to come down on that crowd. I am going to come down on the people who treat Mother Nature like a personal servant willing to clean up after them.
Granted, not every plastic bottle left on the trail is an act of malice. But dirty diapers left on sign posts, well-beaten social trails that stray beyond the designated boardwalks and domesticated chipmunks sure are.
Perhaps it’s the naming convention that’s getting us confused. A “park” insinuates a controlled environment manufactured for our pleasure. State and national parks are living, breathing habitats that we’re allowed to visit respectfully. So everyone needs to agree to abide by a set of rules if we’re going to be welcome in someone else’s home.
The phrase, “Take only photographs, leave only footprints” can no longer be the catchall for Leave No Trace practices. Both of these actions lead to the loss of human life and the destruction of sensitive habitats.
People fall from the rim of the Grand Canyon every summer. Common sense alerts us to be careful when approaching a sheer drop off. But smartphones with cameras have proven to be very distracting to humans who are driving, walking down a public sidewalk and perched on the edge of a cliff. Don’t make your final image an ill-fated action shot.
Also, leaving footprints is fine when you’re strolling on the beach. But it’s detrimental to environments that can’t as easily erode the marks away. I recently visited the Painted Hills in Oregon’s John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Instead of seeing swirling layers of vibrantly colored dirt, I saw some jerk’s footprints criss-crossing the delicate mounds. The surface of these hills will remain marred until wind and rain can erase them over time. That process lasts a lot longer than Instagram glory.
“Pack it in, pack it out” means bring everything you came in with back out with you. Everything includes orange peels, used toilet paper and yes, human waste when you can’t properly bury it. Pooping in a canyon is not cool. Pooping in a bucket and leaving it in the woods is not cool. If you can’t or won’t dig yourself a six-inch-deep cathole, bring a WAG Bag, strap it to the outside of your pack like a real woman, and throw it out in a proper receptacle.
“Leave it better than you found it” should really be your golden rule to live by when recreating in the out of doors. Pick up a discarded plastic bottle on your next hike. (I promise, one will be there.) Clean up the microtrash that collects at campsites like soda can tabs, food packaging and abandoned toy soldiers. Don’t feed that overly-friendly squirrel eyeing up your peanut butter pretzels. And resist the urge to go off trail when the signs clearly ask you not to. Every person who walks on a sensitive habitat contributes to its destruction. Hopefully, that’s the opposite of what you’re planning to do with your free time.
If all of us make small adjustments to our behavior, we can collectively improve the places we love. Then, we bloggers and Instagramers can get off everyone’s back and focus on perfecting the art of throwing topless peace signs.