Leave More Trace?

Today’s article comes to us from one of our most popular guest bloggers, Chris Loynes, a Reader in Outdoor Studies at the University of Cumbria. 

The North American approach of ‘leave no trace’ has crossed the Atlantic to the UK and to some other Europe wide outdoor education programmes, especially those with US provenance or influence. At face value this exhortation seems unquestionably a good thing. However, I will suggest that, in many cases it is either turning a blind eye to the more significant human impacts on nature of visiting a wilderness area (Alagona and Simon, 2012) or introduces an ethic that could be counter to sustaining the rich natural/cultural landscapes of Europe (Beery, 2014) and the related educational endeavours to engage young people with this heritage and it’s continued flourishing. At the very least ‘leave no trace’ needs some thought and some clear boundaries before adopting it as an ethic for your outdoor education practices.

The traces left by ‘leaving no trace’

In the USA the ‘Leave No Trace’ organisation sets out to promote the ethic that aims to minimise human impact on public lands (https://lnt.org). The seven principles of the organisation focus on human behaviour during a visit to public land. It can be argued that this intention, whilst well meaning, ignores the many impacts that are the result of human behaviour when not visiting public lands, the ecological and, especially, the carbon footprint (Chambers et al, 2000) of everyday life. More directly, it ignores the impact of the travel involved to visit public land (see, for example, Orr, (2004) for an environmental education perspective). Arguably these impacts are far more significant on the health of the ecosystems of public lands and elsewhere.  This opens the ‘leave no trace’ concept to criticism. For example packing out rubbish from an area, whilst laudable, is a small contribution when the carbon footprint of your travel to visit the area is ramping up climate change that is a significantly larger threat to the land by several orders of magnitude (Rawles, 2013; Alagona and Simon, 2012). It is similar to the story told by Mike Berners-Lee (2010) of the person discussing with a friend the relative merits of hand towels or electric hand driers and their respective carbon footprints whilst in the bathroom at the airport and about to catch a plane.


School garden: Year 1, lunch in hand, in the school garden one year after the ground was first dug. Photo: University of Cumbria collection

Human traces in the European landscape

Of course the ‘leave no trace’ approach has value in fragile ‘wilderness’ settings. However, in Europe the areas that can truly be called wild land are few and far between (Agnoletti, 2006; Phillips, 2015). Even our uplands and the Arctic tundra have been grazed extensively. Humans have left a big footprint over thousands of years. Despite this the ‘leave no trace’ ethic is becoming widespread and sometimes, I would suggest, an unhelpful approach. Most of our ecosystems have developed with humans as one of, and often the most influential species. This has led to centuries of co-existence sometimes with significant positive impacts on biodiversity. For example coppiced woodlands and flower rich meadows are some of the most bio-diverse habitats in the temperate zone. They support species adapted and specific to them as habitats. These are now considered threatened as old farming and woodland management practices decline. Therefore these and other similar habitats have become the subject of conservation strategies even though the habitats are, or were, intensively managed by humans.

In other cases land management has led to a substantial loss of biodiversity. The uplands of the UK, for example, are claimed by some to be overgrazed by intensive sheep farming leading to species poor habitats compared with the mixed and more bio-diverse habitats that would emerge under less grazing pressure. Experiments in reducing grazing, including re-wilding projects, are attempting to demonstrate the value of reversing this process (Monbiot, 2013). To achieve this apparent reduction in human influence will involve a considerable amount of human intervention of a different kind.

Both situations of so called rich and poor habitats are the result of human management strategies and both will require significant human intervention to sustain or transform them. In these cases the response is better described as ‘leave more trace’ if we are to protect and sustain the habitats and the wildlife we have come to value as part of our culture.


Volunteers: Volunteers removing deer fences from around newly planted native pines as reserve policy has shifted to culling to limit overgrazing. Photo: Chris Loynes

Part of or apart from ‘nature’

‘Leave no trace’ has another more pervasive consequence in that it strengthens the modern view of humans as separate from nature (Beery, 2014). The concept is necessarily predicated on the idea that humans are apart from nature and not a part of nature. Arguably the concept of separation, a consequence of the on-going enlightenment project supported in practice by industrialisation and urbanisation, is an important part of the environmental problem (Rawles, 2010). When humans are perceived as apart from nature it ‘matters’ less, we care less and we can trash it more.

So, to open this up to debate, I offer the maxim of ‘leave more trace’ i.e. that humans are a part of nature and that we inevitably leave a trace. What matters is what this trace is. It is more about leaving the right trace than none at all. Sometimes a bigger trace could be the better ethical decision. This acknowledges that traces are inevitable and encourages a debate about what traces are reasonable, proportional and ethical; and what are not. Perhaps what humans should be seeking is the restorative approach of living landscapes (Steiner, 2008) in which we intervene in order to promote the flourishing of humans and other than humans alike.

The educational benefits of leaving more traces

It’s suppertime and you are camped on the shore with your group after a long day canoeing. At first sight ‘leaving no trace’ might suggest using the stoves packed in your sacks. However, a debate starts up about the relative merits of burning fossil fuels over lighting a small fire using the driftwood nearby.

The rabbit you are skinning was culled from an overrun estate nearby. Later on you will make rabbit stew in a skillet over an open fire before tasting it using the wooden spoon you have carved for yourself. It has made you think about the quantity of meat you eat and the quality of life of the animals from which it came.

Your year two children are digging their hands into the soil in your new school garden for the first time. The smiles on their faces are broad and you imagine the grins and gasps of joy in a few months time when they dig up their first potatoes and cook them in the school kitchen for lunch.

After the floods in the town downstream you are one of many students scattered across the hillside today planting native trees that in a few years will take up 40% more water from the soil slowing run off and easing the heavy rainfall down the valley as part of a new and integrated flood management plan. It feels good to be doing something to prevent more flooded homes in your valley at the same time as restoring habitats that will increase the resilience of many plants and animals to the changes going on in the climate.

All these vignettes have happened to students and teachers I have accompanied outdoors. Camping, bushcraft, gardening, conservation work and many more outdoor activities that involve leaving a substantial trace create endless opportunities for learning. They can provoke thought about our relationship with nature as well as being of direct benefit to it as well as to ourselves. And, whether ‘nature’ is a nature reserve far away or the school garden, it is all around us; it is everywhere.

In drawing students closer to nature these forms of engagement also enhance wellbeing and stand a good chance of influencing how they might act as adults in making choices about the quality as well as the quantity of their impact on the planet (for an example see the ‘Integrated Program’ case study (Linney, 2014). It might even encourage these students, once they are adults, to bring up their children in contact with nature. ‘Leaving more trace’ of the ‘right’ kind is a win win situation for people and nature. Debating what that ‘right’ kind of impact might be is essential for our collective futures – ‘consider your trace’ as a colleague remarked!

Agnoletti, M. (ed) (2006) The Conservation of Cultural Landscapes. Wallingford, Oxfordshire; CAB International.

Peter Alagona & Gregory Simon (2012) Leave No Trace Starts at Home: A

Response to Critics and Vision for the Future. Ethics, Policy & Environment, 15:1, 119-124, DOI: 10.1080/21550085.2012.672695

Beery, T. (2014) People in Nature: relational discourse for outdoor educators Research in Outdoor Education, 12.

Berners-Lee, M. (2010) How Bad Are Bananas? Profile Books.

Chambers, N; Simmons, C. and Wackernagel, M. (2000) Sharing Nature’s Interest, ecological footprints as an indicator of sustainability. New York, NY; Earthscan.

Leave No Trace. About Us Downloaded from https://lnt.org/about

Linney, G. (2014) Journeys into Relation. Council of Outdoor Educators of Ontario. Dowloaded from http://www.coeo.org/integrated-programs.html

Monbiot, G. (2013) Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. London, UK: Penguin Books.

Orr, D. (2004) Earth in Mind. Washington DC; First Island Press.

Phillips, A (2015) The Alps versus the Wilderness. Downloaded from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/alps-vs-american-wilderness-alex-l-phillips?loadAction=comment&midToken=AQGSputpv1Bg2w&trk=eml-mention-reply-mp-cmt&fromEmail=fromEmail&ut=2Xb8Qtq2fvx701

Rawles, K. (2010) A Copernican Revolution in Ethics. In Moore, K. D. and Nelson, M. P. (eds) Moral Ground: ethical action for a planet in peril. San Antonio, Texas; Trinity University Press.

Rawles, K. (2013) Outdoor Adventure in a Carbon Light Era. In Pike, E.C. J. and Beames, S. Outdoor Adventure and Social Theory. London, UK; Routledge.

Steiner, F. (2008) Living Landscapes: an ecological approach to landscape planning. Washington DC; Island Press.

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