DeFrates column: What it means to truly ‘leave no trace’

Lindsay DeFrates
The Ante-Millennial
Lindsay DeFrates

During the recent government shutdown, many of us read with disgust the headlines about the defacing of our national parks. Across the country, park employees were furloughed, and images began to tell a sad tale of overflowing trash cans, backed-up toilets, vehicle tracks in sensitive ecological areas, and the destruction of Joshua Trees that had lived nearly a thousand years.

Many parks will take decades or even centuries to recover from the damage caused during those weeks when a few rotten people realized that no one was watching.

The only good thing to come from these scars on the land was the unifying outrage they created. While one of the most bitter and deeply dividing arguments of our generation split friends, families and houses of Congress down the middle, the one thing we could all agree on was the tragedy of the selfish and irresponsible behavior taking place in our beloved national parks.

Residents of the Roaring Fork Valley and similar mountain communities have felt the issue even more deeply because of our close connection to public land. Thousands of acres of national forest surround our everyday outings, and beckon us on the weekends to ski, hike, camp, ride or play. It’s why we live here, and why people visit us.

Like it or not, outdoor tourism is booming. This is great for communities like ours that depend on tax revenue from recreation tourism, but it means there are more feet, more trash, and more poop in places that were once considered remote.

Hanging Lake is, of course, a prime example of this. After seeing more than 1,200 visitors daily over the last few summers, many of whom don’t follow the rules in just a few small ways, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service is limiting access to a permit system. Conundrum Hot Springs is another local hotspot of heavy impact. Fecal matter in the water and trash throughout a wilderness area prompted a cap on the number of visitors.

Small impacts are multiplied exponentially as more and more people seek adventures in the mountains. Sure, one person only carved their small initials, and another only left behind one piece of their orange peel, but when 1,000 people a day only do one tiny thing wrong …

Most visitors do their best to do their best, but there is sometimes a gap in the knowledge they bring to the mountains, which are so different than the urban places they call home.

As residents of this valley, we have the unique position to be stewards and powerful advocates for respect of the beautiful natural places with which we are surrounded. Not only should we do this because of a moral obligation to care for what we have been given, but also because our communities rely on tourism.

If you value the land around us, take the opportunity to speak up when you see actions that will negatively impact it. Don’t do it as a “gotcha” moment, or out of anger, but assume that many people who come here truly don’t realize that their actions have a heavier impact in these natural spaces than they do on the sidewalks near their house.

The nonprofit Leave No Trace offers seven principles for reducing human impact in the woods. As we are likely to continue to see a large increase in visitors to our trails and rivers, it will be more important than ever to learn and share these practices with visitors and neighbors. The health of our public lands is everyone’s responsibility.

Here are the seven Principles of Leave No Trace, with a short explanation of relevance to our specific community.

1. Plan ahead and prepare — Rescues in the backcountry are becoming more and more common as Instagram and social media make remote places feel accessible. Extra layers, water, food and a paper map are essential. Many visitors do not realize that their batteries will die, or their 4G coverage will not cover the whole hike.

2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces — Stay on the trail, off the wildflowers and off the floating log. Eat lunch on rocks, not meadows, and don’t widen the path by walking around muddy places. Mountain bikers should stay off the trails completely until they are dry.

3. Dispose of waste properly — Micro trash is trash, and if you don’t see a banana tree growing nearby, that peel is not “biodegradable.” Plan for bathroom emergencies both for yourself and your pets, and pack that out.

4. Leave what you find — Don’t pick the flowers, take home the artifacts or collect every cool rock. Other visitors hope to see the same beautiful details, so it is important to leave them there. Take pictures instead.

5. Minimize campfire impact — Don’t burn anywhere that doesn’t already have a fire ring. Follow all fire restrictions for both public and private property.

6. Respect wildlife — For your safety and theirs, do not approach wild animals. Many are struggling during the winter especially, and cannot afford to spend more calories avoiding humans.

7. Be considerate of other visitors — People hike, bike, raft and ski to get away from a crowded, noisy world. Don’t play music on speakers while in the outdoors, and speak kindly and politely to trail users. Help others where you can, and give them space wherever possible.

New social media guidelines: Make sure that the behavior you share through images and posts supports Leave No Trace. Avoid specifically geotagging or hashtagging sensitive areas or places not meant to accommodate crowds. Too much attention can hurt these places. Let others discover them on their own.

We will see more people in the mountains every year. Lamenting the increase in visitors will not change that fact, but educating yourself and each other can preserve the land we love.

Lindsay DeFrates is a freelance writer living in Glenwood Springs. She can be reached at

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