By T.J. Fraser
Anyone who has spent time on the trail has heard phrases such as “Pack It In – Pack It Out” and “Tread Lightly.” But none is more synonymous with responsible outdoor practices than “Leave No Trace.”
More than just a perfectly crafted message, Leave No Trace is a vast international organization with a presence in all 50 States as well as 30 countries throughout the world. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics counts 25,000 active volunteers and members who help provide training and outreach to promote conservation and minimal impact in our natural environments.
One of the main reasons Leave No Trace is so effective is that their principles are succinct, easy to follow and effective. They are:
– 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
We caught up with Ben Lawhon, the Education Director for Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Ben has been with the organization since 2001, is a published author, frequent media source, respected instructor and oversees building the Leave No Trace curriculum, management of national education and training programs and activating international initiatives.
T. J. Fraser: Really appreciate you taking the time for Mountain Hiking Ben.
Ben Lawhon: Glad to do it. Thanks.
T.J.: What’s the overriding goal of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics?
BL: In a nutshell, our mission is to teach people of all ages how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. We do this with targeted education, research and outreach to ensure the long term health of our natural world. And with the incredible partnerships we enjoy, along with the committed efforts of our members, we’re proud to say that we’ve become the most widely accepted outdoor ethics program used on public lands.
T.J.: What is the genesis of the organization?
BL: Leave No Trace was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1994 but the concept began well before that. It actually came about in the 1960’s and was formed by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service. There was a big expansion in the use of public lands at that time and the land managers knew that the public needed to be better educated about how to responsibly enjoy the outdoors. By the mid-80’s, the Forest Service had a formal “No-Trace” program which focused on wilderness ethics and sustainable travel and camping practices. From there, the Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management partnered on a pamphlet titled “Leave No Trace Land Ethics” which created the framework we use today.
T.J.: Over the 12 years you’ve been with Leave No Trace, have you seen people becoming more aware of responsible outdoor practices and the challenges facing our environment?
BL: Absolutely. That said, we still have a long way to go. The National Park Service has nearly 300 million annual visitors and state parks host 725 million visitors annually. Couple these numbers with visitors to lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Army Corps of Engineers, the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the USDA Forest Service, and you have well over a billion visitors to public lands each year. That’s a lot of potential impact.
However, each year we reach millions of individuals through formal courses, through our partners, via educational outreach, our “Subaru Leave No Trace Traveling Trainers,” etc. with a relevant, simple and actionable information about enjoying the outdoors responsibly. We are making a difference but again, much more could be done.
T.J.: What do you see as the biggest hurdle we face in regards to our natural environment and how can we overcome it?
BL: We focus on the responsible enjoyment of the outdoors so from that perspective I’d say the biggest hurdle we face is simply getting people to understand both the nature of their recreational impacts, which include human and pet waste, water pollution, wildlife and campfire impacts and trash, and the strategies and techniques for reducing or even eliminating those impacts.
Impacts in the outdoors are cumulative and compound over time. Once people understand the potential impact they can cause and how they can minimize those impacts, we can all collectively being to enjoy the outdoors in ways that protects the places we share both now and for future generations. We all need a baseline understanding, and simple strategies for leaving places as good or better than we found them.
T.J.: How is your message received by youths and teens growing up in a digital world through your PEAK (Promoting Environmental Awareness in Kids) program?
BL: We sometimes struggle with this since Leave No Trace is best taught in the outdoors. However, through our vast network of over 500 partner organizations and agencies, we are reaching young people where they play, recreate and spend time outside. We offer both an online Awareness Workshop and have just launched an online component to our PEAK Program, which stands for Promoting Environmental Awareness in Kids, which we hope will reach over 50,000 kids annually. What we stress is that Leave No Trace is relevant from your backyard to your backcountry so every young person spending any amount of time outside can learn from and benefit from the program.
T.J.: How do you suggest hikers respond, if at all, if they see someone breaking one of the Leave No Trace tenets?
BL: The bottom line is that confrontation is not the answer. Education is the way to go. Offer a friendly greeting, help them understand the impact they’ve just created and give them realistic solutions to minimize the impact in the future. They may not “get it” immediately or instantly change their behavior, which we know can take time, but simply planting the seed can be the beginning of a whole new way of enjoying the outdoors.
Leave No Trace isn’t about rules and regulations or right vs. wrong. It’s about a framework for making good choices. Our aim is to impart a compelling outdoor ethic that will hopefully guide those who enjoy the out of doors in making positive decisions.
T.J.: How can hikers and backpackers get involved with Leave No Trace in their local community?
BL: All the information about what we offer can be found by visiting our website. It’s easy to become a member and learn about some of the courses we offer. We also offer programs in every State throughout the nation.
Beyond that we encourage everyone to learn our seven principles, share them with your friends and family and most importantly; practice them every chance you get.
I recently accompanied a buddy and his six-year-old son on a fun, nature trail walk. Like most little boys he felt it necessary to touch everything he thought was “cool.” When he came back to us with what he called “treasure” (an extra-large pine cone), I watched with interest as Dad taught Son why we don’t take things from the forest.
“Let’s say someone came in to your room,” he said. “And they decided to take your bed. How would that make you feel?” He then explained how some insects use pine cones the same way we use our beds. I could almost see the wheels turning in the little guy’s head as carefully took the pine cone back to where he found it and gently set it down.
“It’s OK now Dad. I don’t think I woke them up.”
And another convert to Leave No Trace was born.
A big Mountain Hiking thanks to Ben Lawhon for sharing his expertise and his efforts to keep our natural environments as natural as they can be.