Leave No Trace Principles And Landscape Photography

A Guide To Photographing Responsibly

Have you ever wondered what role you could play in protecting our cherished National Parks in the United States?

You may have read some of the articles regarding the explosion of visitation to National Parks and other Public Lands in 2021. Although visitation was down in 2020 due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, it rebounded in a fierce way in 2021.

Perhaps people were done with being cooped up in their homes for a year and decided that being outside was going to be a safer approach than hanging out at theme parks and other crowded venues. Whatever the reason, record numbers headed to the great outdoors in 2021. I think they all had a really good time and will be back in 2022. Great Smoky Mountains National Park had 14.1 million visits in 2021, surpassing the previous 2019 record by 1.5 million. Yellowstone National Park visitation increased by over 1 million visits in 2021, up from 3.8 million in 2020 to over 4.8 million in 2021.

Changes At National Parks

Some Parks are having to take some fairly drastic measures to cope with the crowds. Reservations must be obtained to get to some areas, park gates may be closed after a certain hour, shuttle systems are being expanded. They are doing the best they can to deal with the problem.

Our National Parks exist to be enjoyed and I have spent time in most of them. They offer some of the most beautiful and stunning views and scenes of anywhere in the United States. I believe they should remain open. Closing the National Parks due to the actions of a few is an unfair penalty on the many.

Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park
Cadillac Mountain in Acadia Natl Park - A reservation is now required to go there - Click on Photo to Purchase

An Increase Of Trash In The Parks

The result of all of these extra people is a substantial increase in the trash and garbage in addition to environmental damage of people hiking all over the parks and public lands. The National Parks have to deal with 100 million pounds of garbage. 40 million pounds of that is discarded food. If even a tiny fraction of this is discarded out on the trail, America The Beautiful is not so beautiful anymore.

There is not much park visitors can do about the large number of items that have been properly disposed of, but using reusable food and drink containers would help reduce it some. Disposable bottle and food containers are a big part of the problem. What is avoidable is the amount of trash and garbage that is not disposed of properly. It is simply careless littering and there is no excuse for it.

Every year there is an event in Yosemite National Park called Yosemite Facelift. For a week each year, usually in September, 3,000 volunteers come to the park and pick up over 14,000 pounds of garbage and trash from the roadways and highly visited areas. This is far more than a few random items that accidentally got away in the wind. I commend these volunteers, but the truth is that it shouldn’t be necessary. I fail to understand the selfish mentality of those that litter.

We want to be able to enjoy the pristine views of rivers. Imagine if the rivers in the photos below were lined with litter. I am thankful that it has not yet reached that point.

Merced River and El Capitan in Yosemite National Park
"Rock and River" - Yosemite National Park - Click on Photo to Purchase
Fall River scene in Smoky Mountains
"River Gold" - Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Click on Photo to Purchase

It Also Affects Wildlife

Remember our furry brothers and sisters. Bears and other animals are not helped by eating leftovers that we humans leave behind. Their digestive systems are designed to eat other food. They are also in danger of having to be removed or put down if they become habituated to going after our leftovers or even being directly fed by us. There is a good reason the Parks install bear-proof trash containers. Use them.

The buildup of trash can pose a substantial risk to wildlife like bears, especially, which not only potentially suffer health problems from consuming human food but can also become aggressive once fed. Bears exhibiting food-driven aggression are often killed to protect visitors, according to Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the many parks that must use special locking garbage bins that bears and other animals can't open.

Bear Eating Grass
"That's Close Enough" - Bear Eating What They Should - Click on Photo to Purchase

Leave No Trace

The Leave No Trace principles are generally thought of in regard to being out on trails, overnight backpacking, camping in the wilderness, etc. However, I believe they can, and should, be applied to everywhere you go all the time. There is no location on Earth where it is acceptable to throw trash out the window of a car, drop it in a parking lot, on the ground at a picnic area, or on the trail.

The Seven Principles

1) Plan ahead and prepare. Know about where you are going, how long it is going to take, and how much water and food you will need. Then be sure you have what you need to pack it all out. Obtain the required permits and ask the Park Service for advice.

2) Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Stay on the trail, if there is one. If not, hike on hard rocky surfaces and avoid alpine tundra, moss, lichen, etc. It’s not just one footstep as there will be others behind you.

3) Dispose of waste properly. Simply put, pack it all out. Your trash, your poop, everything. Even the apple core that you feel is biodegradable. Remember the wildlife.

4) Leave what you find. If you didn’t bring it in, you don’t bring it out. The rocks and plants are there to be enjoyed in their natural setting. If you want a souvenir, buy it in the gift shop.

5) Minimize campfire impacts Use common sense when having to use a campfire. Use fire rings and follow all the safety rules for keeping your campfire under control. Avoid having a campfire on windy days. Our public lands don’t need any more wildfires caused by us humans.

6) Respect wildlife. Simply let them be. Follow Park rules for staying the required distance from them. Don’t chase them down or otherwise harass them. They can easily be photographed with proper camera equipment and long lenses.

7) Be considerate of other visitors. Don’t stand in front of others taking photographs and just show respect to others as you would like them to show to you.

Washington Birch Trees in the Fall
"Late Fall" - Birch Trees In Washington State - Click on Photo to Purchase

In Conclusion – We Can Do Better

I believe the vast, vast majority of not only landscape photographers, but of all people are happy to adhere to these seven principles when visiting our National Parks and Public Lands. We all want to be able to admire and photograph the landscape without having to look at other people’s trash and litter.

It doesn’t matter to me if it is just a simple overlook or a mile down a trail. I do everything I can so that no one would ever have an idea I was there. I would hope you would do the same. It is worth the small amount of effort. Let’s all Keep America Beautiful.