It’s an all too familiar scene: A bull elk grazing on the side of the road in Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Park surrounded by 50 park visitors excited by the opportunity to see and photograph such a majestic wild animal. Everyone wants that award winning photo so the crowd of people slowly closes in. Each individual becomes a part of the group, or herd, and then the group mentality or herd way of thinking kicks in. Everyone forgets about the information given to them at the gate showing animals throwing people into the air or the big bold print explaining park regulations. It seems so safe and harmless since the bull continues to graze without running away. Plus there is safety in numbers so why not follow that other guy a little closer for a slightly better angle?
Soon the brave members of the group are actually walking right up to this 1000 lb wild animal, standing right next to him and turning around to get that great vacation shot. This is all bad enough without taking into consideration the flowers and grasses that this bull needs to survive is getting trampled by dozens of people unaware that their careless foot placement and choice of getting closer might cause permanent harm to both the fragile vegetation and the elk that depend on it.
This is a pretty extreme case but the truth is that even the most careful and well trained park visitors on vacation will have some impact during their visit. As the owner of Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris and as a wildlife guide, I visit both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks daily throughout the summer and bring thousands of guests to both parks throughout the year. These parks are at the heart of the world’s largest, nearly intact ecosystem in the world, encompassing millions of acres of public and private land. Each year around 4 million people come from all over the world to experience this awesome place. That is a lot of feet, a lot of mouths to feed and a lot of photos that want to be taken. When you add up the cumulative potential for damage to this fragile and pristine place it becomes obvious that educating each other and our guests should be central to our efforts to help reduce the impact from all of these visitors.
In an effort to help with that mission, our guides decided we should seek more skills and knowledge to help do our part to reduce our own impacts and to educate the traveling public on how to reduce their impacts on this place we love. A well established program focused on exactly that is the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. The Leave No Trace educational program promotes skills and ethics to support the sustainable use of wildlands and natural areas. We decided that the Leave No Trace training program fit perfectly with our mission so I was the lucky member of our team that got to head up to Yellowstone recently for their 5 day Leave No Trace Masters Educator Course taught by the National Outdoor Leadership School.
The Master Educator course is the highest level of Leave No Trace Training and will allow me to train our guides to be Leave No Trace Trainers. This, in turn, will allow them to better educate our guests on the principles of Leave No Trace and ways in which they can help preserve the resources they are enjoying during their time with us. Even a basic awareness of Leave No Trace principles has been shown to dramatically reduce the impact each individual makes while enjoying wild places.
The 7 principles of Leave No Trace are pretty simple and easy to remember:
1. Plan ahead and Prepare: In the scenario above, had the visitors read through the materials from the park and understood the impacts they might have to the wildlife and plant communities, they might have thought about staying a little further back and encouraging others to do so. They might also have brought a slightly better camera if they were interested in bringing home award winning wildlife shots. When you are stuck with an I-Pad as your main camera you either have to get closer or be willing to just watch the elk from a distance.
2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces: This is a big one, especially along the roadsides and established trails. It is not uncommon to see even experienced photographers and visitors trampling through fragile flowers and vegetation to get that perfect sighting or photo. Try to avoid traveling over untouched areas and, when you have to, spread out to avoid creating new trails. In Grand Teton and Yellowstone there are a lot of game trails created by the animals and they tend to be well established and durable. If you have to walk off trail try to find places for your feet that do the least amount of damage. The same principle applies to camping and selecting a good place to set up your tent. Try to use established areas or the most durable place at the site where you will be able to leave the least amount of evidence of being there. One of the great lessons I learned in the backcountry of Yellowstone last week was how well these principles worked. Even heavily used, established park service campsites were basically pristine. Besides impact in the core camp where the food gets prepared and hung, there was often no other evidence of people using the site. That’s pretty impressive given the amount of use that some of these sites see.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly: This seems so basic that many people overlook what they are doing with their waste and how that impacts the long term health of the area. The biggest issue in Grand Teton and Yellowstone is certainly how to dispose of food waste in a way that prevents wildlife, particularly bears, from getting habituated to human food. Though throwing an apple core or banana peel out the window might seem harmless, if a bear or other wildlife gets used to these kind of tasty treats they will begin to associate people with food. This behavior, known as being positively habituated or conditioned, is the leading cause of conflict with wildlife and often leads to the problem animal being killed. In addition to food waste, keeping track of trash and finding wildlife proof trash cans to dispose of it while in the area keeps the ground free of trash allowing future visitors to experience the same pristine vistas that you did.
When it comes to human waste, try to use established restrooms when possible in the frontcountry and when one is not available adhere to a couple tried and true guidelines. Find a place away from water sources, trails and campsites. When urinating try to avoid urinating on vegetation as animals will often defoliate the plant in search of the salt in urine. For the other (number 2 as they say) find a place at least 200 feet from water sources and dig a 6-8 inch deep hole. When you’re finished cover your waste and pack out your toilet paper or use natural materials that get buried with your waste. When toilet paper is left it if often dig up by animals and takes years to fully decompose leaving an unpleasant reminder to future visitors of your visit. In some places, like the lower saddle of the Grand Teton, it is appropriate to carry out your solid waste as the heavy use and climate can create a pretty unsanitary situation for future visitors.
4. Leave What you Find: This is a big one! Almost every day you will see people in the park, especially kids, picking flowers. It seems so harmless until you think about those 4 million people that will also visit the same year as you. If each person only picked 1 flower a day the park would have a lot less flowers. That not only impacts the next visitor who doesn’t get the same chance to enjoy the flowers, it also affects all of the other plants, animals and insects that rely on that flower. It is also common to see people keeping pretty rocks, pine cones and/or artifacts. Not only is this illegal, it is also harmful to the park and all of the other people who might want to enjoy the same thing you are planing to take home. Just remember, the object gains it’s power from the park. When you take it home it is just another ‘thing’, out of context and powerless.
5. Minimize Campfire Impacts: We all want to have a campfire and often go to great lengths to make this happen while enjoying an evening in a wild place. There is no doubt that we are deeply linked to the heat, flame and experience of fire, but I challenge you to think about whether you actually need a fire. Without one, the experience of being in the wilderness at night can be as good or better, not to mention you don’t have to thrash around in the woods in search of wood. If you do choose to have a fire try to keep it small, use existing fire rings and only use downed dead wood. Please don’t create a new ring and fire scar as that will not only encourage future use but will also affect the experience of the next visitor who might not appreciate the reminders of your trip. Keep the hatchet put away and please don’t start chopping down trees in the name of fire. Also be aware of the current fire danger and follow posted regulations to prevent starting a forest fire.
6. Respect Wildlife: The story above is a perfect example of people having no respect for wildlife. It’s important to remember that Grand Teton and Yellowstone are not zoos. We often think of ourselves as observers but in fact we are also animals having an interaction with another animal. Just like us, they have a need for personal space and all wildlife will have a limit to what they are comfortable with. To avoid stressing wildlife and to maintain a safe distance follow park regulations of 25 yards from most animals and 100 yards from bears and wolves. If you cause the animal to change it’s behavior you are probably too close. Though it is counterintuitive, motorized vehicles stress wildlife less than people on foot so staying in your car around roadside wildlife will often allow for better viewing and be less stressful for the animal. In addition remember to keep food stored in a place inaccessible to wildlife and follow food storage requirements for that area. If you are hiking or backpacking always keep your backpack with you if there is food in your pack. The old saying is “A fed bear is a dead bear”.
7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: The reasons for going into wild places can vary dramatically from person to person. Some go for solitude while others go to spend time with family and friends. One thing is certain: however, and that is our desire to enjoy places with little or no impact from people. By following the first six Leave No Trace Principles we can reduce the amount of impact during our our time in that place allowing others the same opportunity. In addition to those principles, thinking about how we are recreating and how that impacts others can lead us to be more considerate. Keep a low profile, yield to others and let nature’s sounds prevail. Try to talk quietly, make as little noise as possible and avoid playing loud radios, honking car horns and put your phone on vibrate if you have service. Other visitors probably don’t think your ring tone is cool or the sound of your voice yelling at your friends is all that enjoyable.
In the end, most of us want to be able to enjoy our public lands and know that we can come back in ten or twenty years and experience the same pristine places the we enjoyed in the past. These principles are a good starting point to learning the best ways in which to minimize our impact and leave the places we visit as good or better than we found them.
For more information about the Leave No Trace program go to http://lnt.org/ where you will find a lot more information and a free online awareness class.
Writing and Photography by Jason Williams, the founder and CEO of Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris and a LNT Master Educator.