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Leaving no trace in your favorite place

How (and why) to minimize your impact on the park

By Charlie Jacobi
Summer 2013 Friends of Acadia Journal

Do you remember the line from the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “Who are those guys?” Those guys, of course, were mostly “the Law.” But with them is a sharp-eyed Native American who effortlessly tracks Butch and the Kid over the flaming red, slickrock canyon country of the desert southwest. Frustrated, they cannot shake him. Butch repeatedly asks his partner the same fruitless question until they jump off that cliff into the raging river with an adrenaline-filled yell. How could they be so easily tracked?

They left a trace.

We too, leave a trace in Acadia and everywhere we go—and often, much more than a trace. We are sometimes culpable for a multitude of physical and social impacts on the environment and our fellow visitors.

Take only pictures, leave only footprints. That’s a good start—but did we disturb wildlife to get that perfect picture or cause soil erosion with that footprint? Seven Leave No Trace principles (see box), based in research and tested in every environment and for all outdoor activities tell us how to avoid the avoidable impacts and minimize the inevitable ones if we have the skill and the will.

The skills can be “simple” skills, like following a trail. This is often easier said than done in Acadia, where the first rule of hiking should be to pay attention and look up for the blazes and cairns that mark the trails. Other skills can be acquired through repeated quizzes in the school of outdoor hard knocks, like reading the weather and understanding your own limits (test them, but not by too much). But skill without will is like Aunt Jemima pancakes without her syrup, or, in today’s vernacular, a smart phone without the smart apps. All the skills in the world won’t do a darn bit of good for the great outdoors without the will to practice them.

Leave No Trace (LNT) is also a code of ethics, and ethics are a set of moral values, in our case directed at the stewardship of the gift of Acadia. Someone somewhere once said ethics is what you do when no one else is looking. Are you walking through that muddy spot in the center to avoid widening the trail? Are you wearing the proper footgear to do this? Is your dog on a leash? Are you digging a cathole to dispose of human waste properly (yep, now you really hope no one else is looking)? You have to dig inside yourself first before you dig that cathole.

I have heard people say the LNT principles are just plain common sense. But it’s surprising how uncommonly they are applied. Every outing is different. Did it rain yesterday? Is this a more sensitive environment? Do I have everything I need? How many people are in my group? What’s my destination on this hike (hint—it’s probably your car)?

What principle deserves the most thought? Hands down, it’s Leave What You Find. It’s the most challenging principle by far. If I add a rock to this cairn won’t it help other hikers? This flower is beautiful—it would look great in my hair. How cool would it be to take home that rock, that feather, that whatever. The essence of the Acadia experience and every great place is the sense of discovery. Leave What You Find asks us for restraint, so others can have a chance at the same discoveries we made. I too, have some natural treasures collected from some near- and some far-flung geography, but it’s from my pre-LNT days. I don’t bring things home anymore, because we all have to share what’s out there.

But please don’t get the idea that Leave No Trace is all hands off. We need to have hands on at times, responsibly, especially with children. That’s partly how all of us developed our own love for nature. If your kids are collecting, be sure to follow the guidelines established by each landowner, or think about taking a picture of it and leaving it for others to enjoy. (OK, even I bring blueberries home from the park…)

Any outdoor adventure might be described as a successive, perhaps sporadic, series of dilemmas, even if we don’t know it. How we handle each one of them makes a difference. No one takes a perfect Leave No Trace hike—certainly not Charlie—or makes a perfect escape—just ask Butch and the Kid. But I aspire to that perfect LNT hike and I’m always thinking about it and trying to do better the next time, because Leave No Trace is all about our attitude and awareness. You can learn the principles and develop outdoor skills, but always cultivate that ethic, that will to practice them every time out. And when you are faced with your next Leave No Trace dilemma, here is the question you should ask yourself: “What would Charlie do?” Then go do it. 

CHARLIE JACOBI is a natural resource specialist for visitor use management at Acadia National Park.

Leave No Trace Principles

Plan Ahead and Prepare
• Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit.
• Prepare for extreme weather, hazards, and emergencies.
• Schedule your trip to avoid times of high use.
• Visit in small groups when possible. Consider splitting larger groups into smaller groups.
• Repackage food to minimize waste.
• Use a map and compass to eliminate the use of marking paint, rock cairns, or flagging.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
• Durable surfaces include established trails and campsites, rock, gravel, dry grasses, or snow.
• Protect riparian areas by camping at least 200 feet from lakes and streams.
• Good campsites are found, not made. Altering a site is not necessary.
In popular areas:
• Concentrate use on existing trails and campsites.
• Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when it is wet or muddy.
• Keep campsites small. Focus activity in areas where vegetation is absent.
In pristine areas:
• Disperse use to prevent the creation of campsites and trails.
• Avoid places where impacts are just beginning.

Dispose of Waste Properly
• Pack it in, pack it out. Inspect your camp site and rest areas for trash or spilled foods. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter.
• Deposit solid human waste in catholes dug 6 to 8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water, camp, and trails. Cover and disguise the cathole when finished.
• Pack out toilet paper and hygiene products.
• To wash yourself or your dishes, carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap. Scatter strained dishwater.

Leave What You Find
• Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
• Leave rocks, plants, and other natural objects as you find them.
• Avoid introducing or transporting nonnative species.
• Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.

Minimize Campfire Impacts
• Campfires can cause lasting impacts to the backcountry. Use a lightweight stove for cooking and enjoy a candle lantern for light.
• Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.
• Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.
• Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.

Respect Wildlife
• Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
• Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
• Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.
• Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.
• Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors
• Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience.
• Be courteous. Yield to other users on the trail.
• Step to the downhill side of the trail when encountering pack stock (such as horses or mules).
• Take breaks and camp away from trails and other visitors.
• Let nature’s sounds prevail. Avoid loud voices and noises.