The “Seven Principles of Leave No Trace” (LNT) establish a set of guidelines for recreation users to minimize their impact on the outdoors and to share the outdoor areas with other users.
Established thirty years ago, the principles of LNT are one of the essential fundamentals of the WHY? of the outdoors. Disagree or agree with the principles; there is no denying how much influence they have had on the greater outdoor community, policy, and how we recreate.
However, as with many principles in our life, many practitioners tend to look at the specific and literal meanings. And follow the letter of the code and seldom think about the broader sense.
Take my formative background: If you are a practicing Catholic, you do not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. A small sacrifice during a time of reflection during the holiest time for those of the Catholic faith. But, you can eat a lobster meal at a local seafood restaurant and still be in the letter of the Catholic faith while ignoring the spirit of the said faith. What sacrifice are you making? Is any contemplation occurring during this time of reflection and faith?
In the same way, it is easy to adhere to the letter of the seven LNT principles and pick up your trash, camp on durable surfaces, minimize campfires if having any at all, etc.
But I think many users have an issue with the seventh principle. And in my opinion, the most important one and from which all the other principles flow: “Be Considerate of Other Visitors.”
As Americans, we tend to be a culture that does not enjoy inconvenience. The modern concept of fast food with drive-thrus originated here, after all, as one immediate example.
And that attitude applies to outdoors.
If you are physically and mentally prepared, you can go on a trip and minimize any potential calamities and not have to engage SAR. Some basic research and physical preparation may take some time on your part vs. an “it’s just walking” attitude, but you are less likely to cause the trip to change for your friends, worry your family, and use first responder resources.
Or disposing of waste properly: A proper cathole, and taking a sub-1 oz trowel to dig said cathole, means you are thinking of something beyond your immediate lighterpack weight and acknowledging the literal reality on the ground with people in many favorite wild places.
But, to me, the seventh principle of LNT goes beyond strictly packing out trash and campfires. It is thinking of the greater community.
What will my actions do beyond just myself? Will my actions impact others adversely? If something is allowed on a technical level, is it ethical?
Laws often allow a business to skirt ethical reasoning. Many people finding a rationale for their outdoor pursuits will protest mining in Bears Ears or energy exploration near Chaco Canyon. What is legal is not ethical in many cases. Certain areas are somewhat open for business. But for political and financial interests arguably why things are opening up across the nation and not health reasons. And the health reasons are curtailed, altered, or even suppressed.
I certainly am not empowered to make decisions about my community. And SAR, EMS, first responders, and most health care workers are not either.
But politicians and business leaders are…be it for COVID 19 or drilling in your favorite place for outdoor recreation. In other words, even if a destination is “open for business,” it may not reflect the community or even facts. The openings reflect an empowered and privileged part of the community instead.
If you can travel 100 miles or more round trip even once in a given year, you are part of the 10% that have the economic resources, cultural capital, or both to take an outdoor vacation. You are privileged. And I put myself in the category at this point in my life.
However, I do not plan on traveling outside of a half-tank of gas so that I can play beyond the Moab area. And I altered other plans, too.
We have the privilege to make a choice based on ethics. A choice that may bring some inconvenience in our lives. However, despite what might be legal, make the ethical choice instead of the legal choice. Don’t be like a corporation.
I can’t tell you about your ethics. But I urge you to take a look at these ethics and think of something beyond what might be good for you and first think of what is ultimately better for the community.
And that, in my opinion, is the true meaning of the seventh LNT principle.
“I can’t tell you about your ethics. But I urge you to take a look at these ethics and think of something beyond what might be good for you and first think of what is ultimately better for the community.”
Why is this so hard for people?
A later comment, but one on my mind again as I see people traveling far for outdoor activities. LNT ethics are great…as long as it does not incovenience someone?
Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us Paul. Your words have stayed in my mind, resonating with intriguing questions about the ethics of my outdoors pursuits. And you achieve this with a sense of humility that is refreshing to see in this day and age.
Thank you, Fran. This post is one of my favorite ones I’ve written if not my most popular.