Leave No Trace – 3 Myths, Effects, and Tips for Outdoor Recreation

Hiking and mountain biking should not come at the expense of future generations of hikers and mountain bikers. For the purpose of preserving our environment and sensitive ecosystems, I recommend the following tips for outdoor recreation: stay on the trail rain or shine, be mindful of plants near the trail, and pick up your dog’s poop. The aforementioned tips are rooted in Leave No Trace principles and can be illustrated with examples that include clay soil and poison ivy.┬áThe following myths, negative effects of human impact, and tips are related to three of the Leave No Trace principles: travel on durable surfaces, leave what you find, and dispose of waste properly.

3 Outdoor Recreation Myths

 

The following are three misconceived myths that hikers, mountain bikers, and nordic walkers may believe:
  1. Messing up a trail is bad – The amount of work that has gone into creating and maintaining a trail can lead some people to think that it is better to hike or bike off-trail instead of hiking or biking through muddy sections because they do not want to mess it up.
  2. Poison Ivy should be destroyedPoison Ivy is a nuisance because it can cause rashes, itching, blisters, and fevers when it comes into contact with your skin. Thus, some people think that a trail would be better off if it did not have any poison ivy near it.
  3. Dog poop fertilizes plants near the trail – Poop is known to be a fertilizer so leaving it near the trail may be a good thing for plants. Further, if wildlife poop is okay then leaving my dog’s poop near the trail must be okay too. Finally, picking up and disposing of dog feces requires extra energy that can be rationalized as unnecessary.

3 Negative Effects of Human Impact

If done improperly, enjoying nature via outdoor recreation can cause harm to land, wildlife habitat, and, ultimately, the wildlife. Believing in the three aforementioned myths can lead to a negative human impact in the form of three interconnected and compounding effects:

  1. Severe erosion can cause riles, gullies, and washouts – Some soils are sensitive to compaction that causes erosion. For example, much of Colorado’s soil contains a high level of clay. Clay is a fine-grained soil that can absorb and hold water tightly. However, hikers, mountain bikers, and motorized vehicles that compact clay-rich soils prevent the clay from absorbing water which then causes water to run on top of the soil. Water running on top of a clay-rich soil can pick up and carry loosened clay particles. Since clay takes a long time to form, the end result of compacted clay soils can be erosion that takes years to fix naturally or lots of energy for park managers to fix manually.
  2. Non-native plants replace native plants – Native plants play an important role in localized ecosystems because they prevent erosion and are a valuable food source for insects and wildlife. Specifically, native plants that are lost due to human trampling or human-caused erosion can take years to recover and can lead to a loss of food source for many insects and wildlife. For example, Poison Ivy serves as a food source for bees, caterpillars, and over 60 species of birds. Even though poison ivy is a nuisance to humans, it plays a vital role in the food webs of ecosystems.
  3. Wildlife search for unnatural sources of food – In most cases, non-native plants do not provide as a valuable a food source for insects and wildlife as do native plants (e.g., poison ivy). As a result of their loss of food sources, wildlife may begin to search for unnatural sources of food such as human garbage, pets, and gardens.

3 Outdoor Recreation Tips for Minimizing Human Impact

The following are three tips that can help you minimize your impact on the environment so that the land and wildlife habitat will be preserved for future generations:
  1. Rain or shine, stay on the trail – Trails are designed to withstand repeated human use and can be repaired easier than areas off-trail. Specifically, the soil and vegetation around a trail are likely to be sensitive to repeated human use. Thus, it is better for a trail and your shoes to get messed up than the surrounding soil that contains vegetation. Further, it is preferred that you choose to hike or bike on a drier or paved trail instead of hiking or biking on a wet one. Finally, you can kindly remind others to stay on the trail too.
  2. Be mindful of plants near the trail – Do your best to not trample plants near the trail. In addition, do not pick flowers or remove plants. Finally, kindly remind others to do the same.
  3. Pick up your dog’s poop – Because of chemically-engineered food, dog feces contains high levels of nitrogen not found in wildlife feces. In Colorado, most of the soils contain a low concentration of nitrogen and, thus, most of the native plants thrive in a low nitrogen soil. Non-native plants and weeds that thrive in high nitrogen soils will replace native plants if enough nitrogen-heavy dog feces is absorbed into the soil. The end result is a loss of food source for local wildlife and insects. Thus, it is very important to use pet waste bags to pick up and dispose of your dog’s poop.
For more tips, read what I learned at a Leave No Trace Awareness Workshop.
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