This summer, my husband and I worked on a project for Leave No Trace Center For Outdoor Ethics researching waste management in three national parks: Yosemite, Grand Teton, and Denali. We spent roughly one month in each park, and we spent our time doing research in the frontcountry campgrounds of each of these parks. This was the longest I had ever spent in a frontcountry environment–not really in civilization, but not really in the remote backcountry either.

Like most backpackers, when I venture outdoors, I spend my time seeking out the most remote areas I can reach within a park. Immediately leaving civilization behind, I cover as many miles as possible to find secluded areas where I melt into the natural environment, choosing the songs of birds as my music, the softness of pine needles as my bed, and the power of my body to navigate. This is where I feel most at home.

leave no trace

In contrast, civilization offers obvious luxuries: infrastructure, stores, entertainment, and community.

But the frontcountry of National Parks blurs the line between nature and civilization. Here, seasonal employees form communities for a few months at a time, stores offer limited resources, and each park has a post office.

Hundreds of people camp in the frontcountry of these parks; some park gigantic RVs in their designated camping spot, while others bring tents, or even bike or hike into the park with all of their gear. Here, people spend a few days, or even a week, and each person has a different experience of the campground. For some, it is the most wild place they've ever been; for others, like backcountry hikers, this is a portal to civilization with more amenities than they've had in days.

leave no trace

What was most interesting to me were people's attitudes–and my own attitude–towards the environment here. More times than I can count, I saw people feeding birds, squirrels, or other wildlife. Most people knew that feeding wildlife in the backcountry was against Leave No Trace Principles, but here it didn't seem as important. People picked mushrooms, broke branches off trees for firewood, and burned their trash. The majority of people were not doing these things, but, from my point of view, the people who did were breaking all the rules of Leave No Trace.

However, the experience got me thinking. I feed birds outside my house in Asheville every winter. I pick mushrooms in the forest near my house (where it is allowed), and although I wouldn't burn plastic or metal, I definitely burn paper waste whenever I build a backyard fire pit.

leave no trace

I knew these people were not bad people; they were just doing what we all do in our own backyards. So, where do we draw the line?

Well, the park has boundaries, you may say. But, it turns out to be a little more complicated than boundaries.

Obviously most of us don't live in a National Park, but our natural environment is still valuable. Animals don't know the boundaries of parks. They wander or fly into civilization all the time. In Grand Teton National Park, I was surprised to learn that wolves were being hunted when they leave the park since they are only protected within the boundaries of Grand Teton and Yellowstone. Here, there is a real struggle between protecting wolves, and keeping the population small enough that farmers are not losing livestock.

leave no trace

In Yosemite, I was surprised to find out that roughly half of the bears in Yosemite Valley wear radio collars, and there are boundaries around the campgrounds within the park that act like the security barriers at the doors of a store to keep you from stealing goods. Any time one of these bears walks past the boundary, there are rangers that get a message on their radio: "Bear XXX entering Upper Pines Campground." Then, the ranger drives over to scare the bear away. One ranger we befriended during our stay enjoyed carrying a Supersoaker to scare the bears away. It made me laugh, but it also made me think about the Leave No Trace Principle: respect wildlife. Sometimes, respecting wildlife means doing what is best for everyone when hundreds of people are trying to live in an area densely populated with bears. I think we can all agree that something is bound to go wrong if there is no intervention.

leave no trace

The bottom line is that Leave No Trace offers a great set of principles for all of us to follow to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. The idea of leaving no trace is a bit unrealistic. However, it sounds a whole lot better than "leave a little trace." Yet, I think this is the mentality we should go into the frontcountry with–when people are living close to, and in, more natural areas. And then, perhaps, we should consider extending that mindset into civilization, as well. All principles could just as easily apply to your backyard as they can to the most remote part of Denali National Park.

We can draw lines around nature, but nature is everywhere. Nature was here before us, and nature is still here with us–even in the most densely populated cities around the world. We may think we're apart from nature, but really, we need to live in harmony. Maybe we can treat civilization with some of the same respect that we treat nature.