The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is a national organization that protects the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly. The center delivers education and research to millions of Americans each year.
Story and Photos by Casey Crocker
As a photographer, I see the need to keep our woodlands, wilderness and shorelines as clean and photogenic as possible. Like fellow artists, it is just in my blood, and hence I follow Leave No Trace. So, rather than Photoshop litter out of pictures, I will physically remove it from the scene and dispose of it properly. I know I am not alone in this mindset, but as we travel and enjoy our belated and welcome summer of 2021 — be it at the local pool or remote ocean or swimming hole — reminding ourselves to safeguard our environment is a good idea. 2020 certainly reminded us how different the world is without human presence and that we do each have an impact on the environment. Equally as important, we each also own a part of the wilderness. Arkansas is unique to the United States in its geography and scenery, and these are immeasurable in value, so Leave No Trace developed a practice to keep our nature well kept, enjoyable and clean. Each destination has its own amenities and needs, so this will adjust based on your location. Along the Gulf Coast, for instance, respect protected sea turtle areas in Florida and remove what you took to the beach because those new turtle hatchlings cannot get past your broken beach chair (and yes, that is something I witnessed and had to find a dumpster for— amongst other trash). Try to put these concepts in practice so you can also be the protector of your environment — wherever the places you will go.
“Arkansas is known endearingly as “the Natural State.” This nickname gives visitors a certain expectation for what they’ll discover and experience here: abundant wildlife, protected watersheds, unmarred vistas and healthy ecosystems. As the resident stewards of the Natural State, we must manage our natural resources wisely and responsibly on behalf of those who will inherit them from us.” — Lauren Ray, Park Ranger, Buffalo National River
Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics (LNT) is a group that encourages awareness for the health of the planet and the experience of being outside. Be our experiences in one’s backyard or the back-country, LNT practices remind us to be cognizant of an individual’s impact on their surroundings. Fundamentally, these moral principles govern a person’s behavior, which in this case is human decency toward nature and the outdoors. Having a natural state of mind by being stewards of our so aptly nicknamed “Natural State” of Arkansas, for instance, is an idea worth spreading, is it not? Only we can protect Arkansas and the Earth from ourselves, and we do this with everyday discipline.
I know it is hard to go #zerowaste, so let us single out litter and its impact first. Litter permeates several of the principles of Leave No Trace and is the number one contributor and threat to natural experiences and resources. Mark Camp, director of Keep Arkansas Beautiful, says, “Littering is carelessness. People don’t think about flicking a cigarette out a window or tossing it on the ground. If you take it in you should take it out. We need to be conscious, and littering is illegal.” In the COVID-conscious fiscal year of 2020, Keep Arkansas Beautiful had more than 4,000 volunteers working 1,600 hours to pick up 153,000 pounds of litter, and 4.1 million pounds of bulky waste over 1,000 miles of Arkansas roadways during 212 clean-up events. Compared to the year 2019, the organization had almost 7,000 volunteers working almost 29,000 hours to pick up the same quantity of litter, and 1.7 million pounds of bulky waste over 850 miles of Arkansas roadways during 179 clean-up events. This data suggests there were fewer people working even harder to clean up pretty much the same amount of litter (and near half the bulky trash) in a similar radius during the pandemic than before. So what does that tell you? That is a lot of heavy lifting, and Arkansans love keeping Arkansas beautiful.
Going more global, but also more microscopic, cigarette butts alone account for 38 percent of all collected litter and 77 percent of individuals polled do not even think of them as litter, according to Keep America Beautiful. They also can take up to 10 years to decompose, can carry a fine of up to $1,000 and 1-year imprisonment, and globally account for an estimated 1.69 billion pounds of waste each year. Surfrider Foundation estimates that of the trillions of cigs tossed out each year, millions end up in the ocean. Even one expired cigarette will kill all the goldfish in your 2-gallon fishbowl, so imagine the impact of millions of the objects introduced into Arkansas waterways will do to the fish population and ecosystem (and we have a plethora of waterways — 1,143 square miles, according to USGS). It is good — though the need is sad — that there are companies out there that recycle used cigarettes into surfboards, park benches, frisbees, and, yes, even ashtrays.
The impacts to the environment by humans go beyond trash, so let us think about the living. Trampled vegetation, animal endangerment, polluted water ecosystems, vandalization, contaminations and carvings all contribute to the damage of preserved areas. Fortunately, the hundreds of those Arkansans like the Ken Smith, Tim Ernst, and Neil Comptons of the world go through shovel after shovel and sometimes through a Department of Interior changing amount of effort to conserve public lands. If they did not, we wouldn’t have places like the first of its kind Buffalo National River. They will not be the last. We have Arkansas Game and Fish hatcheries that provide fish, so we should respond in respect. However, unfortunately, things do happen and millions of acres in the wildlands on Earth will be polluted or burn unintentionally this year. The keyword here is “unintentionally.”
Here are the Leave No Trace 7 principles to practice:
1. Plan Ahead and Prepare. Know the local regulations, bring a physical map, travel in small groups, check the weather, and bring ample water and food. Cell service is not a guarantee and people can get lost quickly, so familiarizing yourself ahead of time and take a printed map — maybe even a compass. Bring a mini-shovel and some sort of bag for your trash. Go ahead and take the granola bars out of the box before you hit the trail. Let someone know where you are going and provide any contact info where available.
2. Travel on Durable Surfaces. Stay on the trail and use the middle of the path. Do not make new paths and avoid using known shortcuts. Most paths are blazed or marked and are there to minimize the impact on the surrounding area. These paths are designed for human use and we are lucky to have them in place. You may even find resting spots along the way.
3. Dispose of Waste Properly. This principle has two parts. First, everybody uses the bathroom, and in this case the best way to dispose of the unspeakable is to dig a cat hole. Do the deed in said cat hole and bury it — or take it with, if you wish. Dig a 6-8-inch-deep hole 200 feet away from water sources and from known paths (yes, you will have to go off-trail here and it is acceptable in this case). Your mini shovel should only touch dirt and backfill the cat hole. Secondly, carry out 100 percent of your trash. Pack it in. Pack it out. Bonus points from the environment if you pack out trash that isn’t even yours. Do not burn your trash — aluminum cans and glass do not burn. Glass isn’t even allowed near waterways and can explode in a fire; I’ve seen it happen. Also, it is against the law to litter, and if caught you could be fined. Nothing really ruins a cool scene than man-made litter. That gorgeous scenic vista with a can, and now you cannot unsee the can.
4. Leave What You Find. Preserve the past for the future by not taking flowers, rocks, sticks or animals. Resist this temptation, except to remove trash that was not supposed to be there in the first place. I have seen someone get a firm and embarrassing talking to at a National Park for putting rocks in a bag. Ecosystems are fragile and are to be observed and protected for future generations. It’s nice when you feel like you are the very first to see a place (even if you know are not). As the saying goes, take only pictures and leave only footprints. Photographs are one of the best souvenirs, anyway!
5. Minimize Campfires. Campfires are fun and a distinct human pastime. However, they do leave evidence, so if you want a fire use fire rings and keep the fire small. Do not bring firewood in and use dinky tree limbs that are already down on the ground and dry. Consider the use of a portable stove as it is the least impactful because there is no actual campfire. Do not burn your cans or plastic as they will emit fumes or not burn completely, resulting in litter. And always put the fire completely out before you depart the campsite.
6. Respect Wildlife. Keep your distance, use binoculars and do not feed wildlife as they have different dietary needs than humans. If you see an animal in trouble, contact a certified local employee of the area — a ranger or the like — and they will act and appreciate the fact that you minimized your interaction with the animal. Store food in bear-safe methods. And it is the law that you do not harass wildlife.
7. Be Considerate of Others. Respect other’s experiences of the outdoors. Yield to one another, pass on your left, stop for horses even if you are on a bike, find and take breaks on durable surfaces away from the trail, manage your pet by keeping them on a leash and definitely clean up after them, respect private property, and let nature’s sounds prevail. If you must bring music, keep the volume low as not to disturb others.
Leave No Trace began as a method for people to minimize their impact while visiting the outdoors. People are going to visit the outdoors, so is it not reasonable to find ways to take care of it as best as possible so that others might naturally enjoy it as well? Kane Webb, former executive director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, says, “The Natural State is sold on being gorgeous and largely unmarred, and to trash it ourselves is remarkably foolish.”
Now, I grew up in the Scouts and rock-hopping through the Ozarks, but you don’t have to become a Girl or Boy Scout or go so far as to contact your local senator to make a difference; all one has to do to start is to make that quiet promise to oneself that you won’t litter. None of us are Superman or able to solve all the world’s problems, but even Superman and Smokey Bear need a squad to keep the Leave No Trace ethics in practice. All the efforts and the agencies around the globe can boil it down that nature has an intrinsic value and a single person making efforts to keep it as pristine as possible makes a difference.
There are other resources at the Leave No Trace website to look into when educating yourself or another. And the aforementioned Smokey Bear has an entire website dedicated to preventing wildfires. Thank you for doing your part to #leavenotrace #keeparkansasbeautiful #keepamericabeautiful and as “Natural” (and photogenic) as possible.