Linking Leave No Trace Principles to Environmental Leadership

Last month, I participated in a Leave No Trace Master Educator course on behalf of Sustainable Summer. Over the five days, four of which were spent paddling and portaging canoes in Adirondack Park, I joined eight other leaders in the outdoor industry to discuss techniques for teaching Leave No Trace principles within our respective organizations. As educators, we paid particular attention to the why behind each of the principles as we dove into methods and skills needed for effectively covering the content. 

Before plunging into the different principles, let us take a minute to briefly outline the history behind Leave No Trace. The concept of Leave No Trace was created by the United States Forest Service in the 1960’s.  As public lands were expanding, land managers saw an increasing need to educate land users on the biophysical effects of their use. By the mid-1980’s, the USFS had a formal “No-Trace” program focusing on wilderness ethics, as well as sustainable travel and camping protocol. The growing popularity and success of this Forest Service program lead to cooperation with the National Park Service as well as the Bureau of Land Management. The three agencies collaborated on a pamphlet entitled “Leave No Trace Land Ethics” just a few years later. In the early 1990’s, the USFS worked with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to develop a hands-on, science-based training for non-motorized recreational activities.

An outdoor summit assembled in 1993 consisting of nonprofit organizations, NOLS, outdoor manufacturers, federal land management agencies, sporting trade associations, and various other outdoor industry to create the independent nonprofit organization called Leave No Trace. It was then officially incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 1994 with the mission of expanding Leave No Trace training and educational resources, spreading the general program components, and engaging a diverse range of partners from the federal land management agencies and outdoor industry corporations to nonprofit environmental and outdoor organizations and youth-serving groups. Today, the Leave No Trace program reaches over 15 million Americans and dozens of countries each year with conservation initiatives, education, training, research, and outreach.

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is headquartered in Boulder, Colorado. They offer Awareness workshops, Trainer Courses, and the Master Educator courses; the differences between the courses being the length and the depth at which each principle is discussed. Since the first training held in the early 90’s, the Leave No Trace program has grown to include over 8,000 Master Educators, and more than 45,000 Trainers. Feel free to read more about how to get involved with the organization here:

I found myself interested in this course on behalf of Sustainable Summer because of the outdoor components that we weave into all of our domestic and global programs. Our mission is to cultivate the next generation of environmental leaders, so it seemed fitting to become a master educator by an organization widely known and well-respected in the outdoor industry. I was particularly interested in how the principles could be applied to our guiding principles; challenge-based learning, global citizenship, and sustainability immersion. The intention of my participation is two-fold: to incorporate the Seven Leave No Trace Principles into our different program’s curricula and be eligible to offer a Leave No Trace trainer course to our students that sign up for the optional Post-Dartmouth 8-day hike along the Appalachian Trail.

The principles are as follows:

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare
    • Arguably, the most important principles of Leave No Trace. As an organization planning itineraries across the globe, most of the measures to ensure safety while in the field happen before the program commences. From seeking out trustworthy and knowledgeable partners to making sure our field staff understand the ins-and-outs or back-up plans for each day, we know that inadequate planning can lead to undesirable outcomes in the field.
  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
    • This principle can be applied to a short day hike on our Dartmouth Pre-College program to the Velvet Rocks along the Appalachian Trail or while hiking the Laguna Quilatoa Rim trail at 12,000 ft. in Chugchilan, Ecuador. Especially knowing that we will travel in larger groups (8-12) at a time, we can greatly reduce our impact on natural areas by staying on surfaces that can withstand the foot traffic.
  • Dispose of Waste Properly
    • Disposing of waste properly is a principle that we analyze at many scales on all of our programs. Though the Leave No Trace course focused specifically on waste disposal in front and backcountry settings, we love talking about this concept because of it’s impact on sustainability efforts. Sustainable Summer programs analyze the implications of a dense urban environment of New York City and how disposing of waste is crucial to their water quality. International programs flip the entire principle on its head and look at strategies for viewing our waste as a resource with humanure composting toilets and biodigestor’s taking the methane produced from our excrement and using it to cook our morning eggs. Just as well, we’ll be teaching the importance of digging a cat hole in the backcountry on all of our hikes.
  • Leave What You Find
    • The principle Leave What You Find translates really well to our tourist vs traveler discussion. The Leave No Trace principle stresses leaving what you find for historical record, cultural reasons, and scientific inquiry. Making a mindful effort to be aware of the space and culture of the places we have programs is a minimal expectation that our participants adhere to. For example, the Ecuadorian government changed their constitution in 2007 granting legal rights to nature. It is also widely understood in the Andean cosmovision that each rock, stick, or blade of grass have a purpose and a right to exist where they do.
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts
    • Campfires inevitably have an impact on the environment. On our domestic programs, we have the opportunity to spend a few nights in tents. We understand the comradery that can come from a night spent around a campfire. Our goal is to successfully teach why and how to reduce the impacts campfires have on the environment.
  • Respect Wildlife
    • Being respectful of wildlife can be something as simple as turning your cell phone to silent mode on a hike. It could be left to reading notices from land management about being mindful of times of years when particular birds may be nesting and what areas to avoid. Regardless, when in areas lesser impacted by human activity, it is important to know you’re not the only one around.
  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors
    • This principle really ties the rest together and defines why we bother to mind the previous six. We are looking to preserve these lands and these spaces for other users, whether that is in an hour, next year, or in a century down the road.

Outside of the principles themselves, one of the biggest takeaways from this course was the way in which we talk about each of these principles. If I were to ask a group of people that had a moderate amount of outdoor experiences, i.e. comfortable with day hikes and have spent time front-country camping, to raise their hands if they knew what Leave No Trace meant,  the majority of them would. If I then asked them to list four of the seven principles, most hands would go down; almost all hands would go down when prompted to list all seven. The point of Leave No Trace, however, is not to be able to have a strict rulebook on what you can and cannot do in an outdoor space; rather, it is the effort to cultivate an outdoor ethic that helps user’s realize their impact on outdoor spaces. Whether we are talking about Machu Picchu in Peru or Yosemite National Park in California, land management agencies are facing difficult decisions on how to regulate the human impacts on places with higher and higher foot traffic each year.

An article that we read on the course was titled Authority of the Resource. The basic conclusion of this article addressed the way in which we communicate with others about the use of outdoor space. There is a heavy reliance on the multiplier effect as a means of transmitting Leave No Trace knowledge effectively so the ways we choose to address different audiences is just as important as the message itself. For example, rather than scolding a child for throwing rocks at tree branches or yelling at someone for the use of their speaker on hike because you personally don’t like it, the focus is on having a conversation that will lead to behavior change for the sake of the resource in the long term. Chances are high that the damage is already done by the time you witness an ecologically destructive behavior. The birds that would have been nesting in the branches would have already taken flight to find a new nesting ground, and the wildlife you would have been able to see would have already been spooked by the person blaring their speaker. Being able to have a conversation about why a behavior is or isn’t appropriate and communicate that in a way that isn’t demeaning is the chief priority. Throughout the debrief on this topic, I couldn’t help but thinking of the same communication techniques used in student behavior management philosophies. By focusing on behavior and the impacts that it is having on a group dynamic or a community, rather than assigning blame, the conversation can lend itself to collaborating on and becoming a part of a common goal instead of a hierarchical authority enforcing a rule that the user may or may not understand. I spend much of my time researching and learning about how to most effectively prepare young environmental leaders in an ever globalizing and connected world. I have found that teaching participants to recognize audiences and adapt their communication styles to be among the most important skills for affecting behavior change- the same mentality that drives the Authority of the Resource. 

By tying the Leave No Trace principles to our existing curricula, our programs will be further rooted in actionable items for young environmental leaders to take part in as they return home to their communities. I am excited to tailor each of these principles towards our 2019 program offerings, as well as have the Leave No Trace Trainer Course be a part of our Post-Dartmouth 8-day add-on Hike along the Appalachian Trail in July 2019.