This is part 4 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.
The fourth principle, leave what you find, refers to minimizing your impact on a space by leaving it as it is, not removing plants, animals or artifacts. Here’s an exception: remove all the trash you want! (See principle 3)
Why leave what you find?
I was out hiking with my husband in Capitol Reef National Park a few years ago. As my eyes were scanning side to side, taking in the beautiful desert scenery, his eyes narrowed in on a small rock in the trail. He stopped to pick it up and said “hey, look: an arrowhead!” He has a crazy superpower in that he can find these things anywhere. It was a cool moment where we observed the shape of the stone and he taught me a few things that he’d learned in high school about Native American crafts. I took a picture and then he bent down to replace it on the trail. The next sharp-eyed visitor will have the opportunity to see that arrowhead.
If we’d decided to pocket it and keep going, then no one else would be able to have that moment of discovery. And the arrowhead would probably be shoved into a box in the garage, never to be looked at again. This is just one example of how one small decision can impact visitors looking for their own cool experience.
This principle applies both to human artifacts and living plants. Taking flowers, cutting live branches, carving initials into trees and other acts that disturb living things are not advised in the spirit of leaving a minimal impact on the environment.
How to leave what you find?
It is human nature to want to leave our mark on things or to take mementos home from our travels. But it’s now easier than ever to grab your smartphone and snap a photo of the cool things you discover while out exploring public lands.
Also, consider how your campsite alters the landscape. After packing up your belongings, try to disguise your presence by brushing over tent areas with sticks and leaves. Block off any inadvertent user trails you may have created during your stay. Make the area look as it did before you arrived.
Historically, cairns have been used as navigational tools. They are stacks of rocks that mark trails and routes across the landscape. Cairns are often seen above treeline, where there is no other way to mark the trail. In poor conditions, these rocks are incredibly helpful to hikers who need to find their way.
But another type of cairn exists: the decorative cairn. Often they are made in large clusters. Some people find them artistic, beautiful, charming. Others see them as disruptive, ugly, unnecessary. I find myself in the latter group. While I am grateful for cairns marking a difficult to follow path, I abhor cairns that are placed there to “enhance” the landscape. When I go out to explore a wild place, I most enjoy seeing little to no evidence of other people having been there. So, if you like to build cairns, I’d like to offer you a compromise: build cairns to your heart’s desire, take all the photos, post to Instagram, satisfy your creative needs. But, before you leave, dismantle your artwork. Return the rocks where you got them and move on. Then you and I can both enjoy the wilderness in our own way.
A legal note
The Leave No Trace Principles are suggested guidelines, not laws. But it’s important to note an exception here.
From lnt.org: “Cultural artifacts are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. It is illegal to remove or disturb archeological sites, historic sites, or artifacts such as pot shards, arrowheads, structures, and even antique bottles found on public lands.”
We have lost so much of our history to people who have raided cultural sites in the past. It is important to preserve this heritage for the generations to come. To read more about this Act, click here.
Questions about anything you read? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear more about how you practice Leave No Trace.