Leave No Trace 2.0
As Texans rush to play outdoors, thoughtful actions can minimize the impact on nature.
In his second term, Gov. Pat Neff hoped to convince the 38th Texas Legislature that Texas should join the growing national public-lands movement. He wanted to create a network of parks for the people of the state, and he even donated a piece of family land to get the process started.
“Nothing is more conducive to the happiness and contentment of a people, the state’s most valuable asset, than for them to go back to nature where the bees hum, the birds sing, the brooks ripple, the breezes blow, the flowers bloom and the bass bite,” he said.
A century later, as Texas State Parks celebrate their centennial, Texans reap the rewards of Neff’s grand public-lands vision. From the beaches of the Upper Coast to the Panhandle’s dramatic plains, generations of explorers have come to enjoy these landscapes. With such a great resource, of course, comes great responsibility, and taking care of our public lands in 21st-century Texas can be … complicated.
The time-tested ideas of Leave No Trace — packing out trash, respecting wildlife and maintaining courteous attitudes toward other park visitors — are as relevant as ever. At the same time, as more Texans discover the joy of the outdoors and put new pressures on parklands, Leave No Trace adherents are finding a need to adjust the message first employed three decades ago by national conservationists.
Drones, electronics and social media — while they can enrich people’s experience of nature and reach new audiences with the wonders of the outdoors — have caused unforeseen impacts and prompted new discussions about the visitor experience. Today, photographers, climbers, anglers, campers and others are finding ways to build on the original Leave No Trace program, and public-land managers and interpretive staff are all on board.
WHAT IS LEAVE NO TRACE?
THE COLORADO-BASED nonprofit Leave No Trace was founded in 1994 by a coalition of conservationists, outdoor industry representatives and agencies such as the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service, with backcountry explorers as the intended audience. Today, Leave No Trace operates programs in more than 90 countries, offering assorted courses incorporating seven established principles.
“As demand has grown, we have evolved and expanded,” says J.D. Tanner, director of education for Leave No Trace.
Current programs, Tanner says, are as likely to focus on front-country experiences as remote wilderness forays.
THE 7 LEAVE NO TRACE PRINCIPLES + 3 EXTRAS (and some Texas tips):
THE ‘WHY' OF PARK RULES
TARA HUMPHREYS, 14-year veteran of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, leads the team that educates the public about sustainability and outdoor recreation in her role as TPWD’s director of interpretation. The agency strives to protect natural and archaeological resources in the 630,000-acre Texas State Park system while balancing the needs of recreationalists.
“We embrace Leave No Trace,” Humphreys says. “And we also spend a lot of time talking about why we have these rules.”
The Leave No Trace principles — and rules specific to parks — exist to protect the surrounding ecosystem and the experience of other visitors. Nature and wild spaces are complicated systems, Humphreys says, and sometimes actions can affect wildlife or other natural resources in unexpected ways. For example, it might not be clear to visitors why a park has a rule stating that dogs cannot be off-leash — but if rangers communicate that off-leash dogs could scare mother deer into leaving their fawns, the rule takes on a new importance.
MORE PEOPLE, MORE IMPACT
IN THE WAKE of the coronavirus epidemic, park visitation and outdoor recreation increased by an estimated 25 percent nationwide. In Texas, state parks have seen a steady increase in visitation from 2016 to present, and in 2021, state parks greeted a record 9.9 million visitors. It takes only a bit of effort from each one to keep the park experience in peak form, and the Leave No Trace principles are a good place to start.
Dinosaur Valley State Park near Glen Rose, famed for dinosaur tracks visible along the Paluxy River, reached peak visitation during COVID with around 280,000 visitors in 2021.
“With only 1,800 acres, it’s just not a lot of space,” Superintendent Jeff Davis says. “We are seeing increased numbers of people and new audiences, and we want that, but it does bring in more folks who don’t know the ethics.”
Pressures from visitors at Dinosaur Valley include firewood gathering, the removal of stone fossils and archaeological material (bands of Tonkawa and later Comanche occupied the area) and campers who play loud music or set up movie projectors some nights.
TPWD has rules limiting these activities, and the park offers a program called “Dinosaur Detectives” focusing on Leave No Trace education. Young campers are shown a campsite where rules weren’t followed and are invited to point out how the scenario could be improved.
“Our first approach is always as educators and interpreters,” Davis says.
One activity of recent concern at Dinosaur Valley is rock stacking. Although building rock cairns to mark trails have long been an aid to navigation, social media has inspired visitors to create and share photos of their own elaborate rock sculptures, sometimes 6 feet tall.
“What people don’t realize is that when you’re moving rocks, it affects habitat, and it also affects the visitor experience,” Davis says. “That’s where Leave No Trace comes in.”
Rocks provide shelter for reptiles, insects, amphibians and aquatic species, Davis says. Let that awareness guide your actions, and if you do move rocks or branches, put them back where you found them.
“We want visitors to make sure the next visitors can enjoy those same things,” Humphreys says.
LEAVE THINGS BETTER
As more people than ever are enjoying the wild spaces of Texas, many Leave No Trace advocates advise that we should not only leave things the same as we found them, but strive to leave them in better shape.
Campers can sweep sites for microtrash and abide by campfire restrictions. Along Texas rivers and beaches, cleanup opportunities are increasingly commonplace.
For those who enjoy a musical accompaniment to their outing, earbuds or headphones offer a courteous way to enjoy your own personal soundtrack without annoying other people. Tanner points to a wealth of new studies showing that music in the woods can have negative effects on birds and other critters, already stressed by human traffic.
Greg Stunz, who directs sportfish science at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi’s Harte Research Institute, has observed that Texas anglers have likewise embraced new means of resource conservation. Catch-and-release angling has gained traction; smartphones and social media have made it easy to document prize fish without hauling them to the dock.
“Nine times out of 10, when you release a fish, it survives,” Stunz says. “That 10 percent mortality comes when they swallow the hook. Anglers can have high confidence that fish do very well when released.”
Although good eating has long been part of the culture of fishing, today’s younger anglers are less concerned with catching fish for food than their older counterparts. Whatever the motivation, knowing and abiding by bag limits and other regulations keeps more live fish in the water.
New tools and techniques for catch-and-release fishing have also improved survival rates. Venting deep-sea species whose organs have filled with gas, tamping down barbed hooks, using lip-grippers to preserve a fish’s protective slime and handling larger fish carefully to prevent mouth damage are all ways that modern anglers can help keep fish healthy.
“Angler engagement is a big component of our programs,” Stunz says.
A NEW BREED OF OUTDOOR TEXANS
In many ways, pro photographer Jennifer Leigh Warner, who specializes in natural landscapes and wildlife images, embodies the new breed of outdoor Texan. Based in San Antonio, Warner is a certified Master Naturalist and has served as the chair of the North America Nature Photography Association ethics committee.
In an age of social media and influencer culture, she says that amateurs and professionals in the field should both abide by the same level of ethics. As an example of what can go wrong, she points to an unfortunate criminal incident a decade ago when delicate sandstone formations at Arches National Park were damaged when a photographer lit a fire to light the iconic Delicate Arch.
Her advice boils down to a sort of Hippocratic oath for outdoorspeople. First, do no harm. Stick to trails and allow respect for wildlife and the natural resources to determine the shot. Don’t cut branches that are blocking your view; don’t trample sensitive areas. If you are going to post or publish photographs, be aware that they may bring attention to private lands or landscapes that have been set aside for reasons other than recreation.
Rules for drones are site-specific, she notes, but regardless of whether they are allowed, they can interfere both with wildlife and visitor experiences.
“I’m always advocating for people to educate themselves,” Warner says.
And that education makes a difference. Whether Texans are looking up drone laws, learning best practices for keeping our fish healthy or discovering the ecological impacts behind the rules at parks, every little bit helps when it comes to preserving our public lands. The new guidelines of Leave No Trace preserve the ethos of the original movement — and the vision that Pat Neff had for our wild spaces. By taking care of our parks, we can ensure that all Texans can enjoy the places where the bees hum, the birds sing, the brooks ripple, the breezes blow, the flowers bloom and the bass bite.
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