Posted by: kerryl29 | August 20, 2018

Leave No Trace

[Please forgive the absence of imagery accompanying this post; given the nature of the subject matter, inclusion of photographs of the type I ordinarily post on this blog would be unwarranted.]

Followers of this blog know of my concerns regarding overuse of public lands.  I most recently–and directly–addressed this subject approximately one year ago in the context of the overcrowding I experienced at Yosemite National Park.  While that missive focused directly on Yosemite, the stated problem is more widespread.  Much more widespread.

It’s depressing how frequently I see the effects of human presence at natural areas, be they national parks, state parks, preserves or any other designated land open to the public.  Graffiti, erosion, the effect of “trail cutting,” garbage…you name it.  At some level, I suppose, this is to be expected.  The increased visitation–in some instances, dramatic increases–logically means more of something that was never truly absent in the first place.  I suppose the kind of degradation we’re seeing is inevitable…

Or is it?

This sort of thing is only inescapable if the vast majority of us–those who truly care about natural places and the native plants and animals that inhabit them–acquiesce in their degradation.  Outdoor photographers–that includes me and a great many of the people who read this blog–depend on the preservation of natural areas.  And “preservation” means far more than technically bequeathing some kind of protective status on a locale.  Substantively, “preservation” means actually retaining the appearance and character of a place and, by extension, that means taking (or refraining from) action on the ground.  And, let’s face it; if people like us, who routinely claim–implicitly and explicitly–to be concerned about the stewardship of the land don’t set a positive example, why should we expect anyone else to do so?  Emphasis on the word “positive” in the previous sentence is not applied gratuitously; I suspect that all of us have seen photographers in the field set the kind of example that we claim to condemn.

The first direction must be:  do no harm.  It frankly shouldn’t be that difficult to follow a leave no trace principle.  Refrain from leaving designated areas.  Avoid trampling on vegetation.  Leave nothing behind that wasn’t in place when you arrived.  In essence, when you leave a location, a subsequent visitor shouldn’t be able to tell you were ever there in the first place.  If everyone follows this dictum we’re all going to be in much better shape.

In accord with this line of thinking, I offer below a verbatim copy of an Outdoor Photographer’s 10 Commandments, as articulated by well-known photographer Michael Gordon:

The Outdoor Photographers Ten Commandments

1. I don’t own this planet or this particular landscape. I’m a visitor here and my needs and wants are secondary to its primary inhabitants. I’m thankful that I get to share this space with them.

2. I will step around or over EVERY plant I encounter, no matter whether dead or alive.

3. If a plant, boulder, or other natural object is in my composition – no matter what – I will recompose instead of altering or damaging the landscape.

4. I will avoid herd mentality and behavior. I will do my very best to not travel in photographic packs, but when I do, I will be very mindful of my steps and actions as well as those of my fellow photographers.

5. I will not covet the photographs or locations of other photographers. I understand that popularity has led to the ecological decline of many ‘hot spots’ and that great photographs can be found just about anywhere.

6. If I specialize in night photography, I will make sure that I have adequate daylight preparation or proper nighttime illumination so as not trample or destroy ANY vegetation anywhere around me.

7. I will never take anything, leave anything, or alter anything in the pursuit of my photographs.

8. If I can’t make the image I desire without breaching these commandments, I will walk away empty handed.

9. I will educate my fellow photographers and students (if you teach/lead workshops) about the critical importance of field ethics.

10. In the existential scheme of things, me and my photographs just don’t matter. It’s never worth abusing plants or a landscape to make an insignificant photograph.

This all represents an excellent start, entirely consistent as it is with the “do no harm” principle.  If everyone–including but not limited to–photographers followed these edicts, we’d been in good shape.  But, of course, not everyone’s going to do so.

I think it’s now incumbent upon those of us who are concerned with the degradation of natural areas to take another step to ensure their survival.  When we see someone doing something destructive, we should take action.  A great deal of the disintegration that we see is a product of simple ignorance, and in those instances some gentle informing–avoiding a didactic lecture–is probably all people need to hear.  You can’t behave properly, after all, if you don’t know you’re misbehaving in the first place.

Willful destruction and misbehavior is another matter.  People who are purposefully engaged in harming natural areas and their inhabitants need to be identified and reported to the appropriate authorities.  If we really care about these places we need to make clear that people who are deliberately ruining them will pay a price.  With any luck at all, the recognition that there are consequences for destructive behavior will deter those inclined to engage in such activities.

There’s no time to lose.  Our natural areas are being stressed like never before.  If we don’t act–directly and indirectly–to truly preserve these places, indelible damage will be done.  Like so many other things in this world, the worst reactions are complacency and despondency.  We can’t simply rely on overworked, understaffed, underfinanced official agencies to carry out a preservation mission.  And we absolutely must not give in to a sense of inevitable decline.  Those of us who care about these places have it in our power to effect the outcome we want to see; all we need is the knowledge of what needs to be done, the commitment to act and the perseverance to see the job through.


  1. I would add an 11th commandment: “Read and obey posted signs. They have been placed there for a reason.” I have encountered dogs on backcountry trails that are clearly posted with “No dogs” signs. I have brought to someone’s attention a posted sign regarding staying on the trail. A little common sense goes a long way not only to preserve natural places, but also to enable others to enjoy them.

    • Good point, Ellen.

  2. Don’t disagree and I have always done my very best to leave nothing behind or disturb our wildlife. But I also fear that here in the UK the authorities try to control visitors too much…to the extent that they create too many hot spots and in many ways add to the heard phenomena. That and the supposed need to get the car or coach right to the tripod spots doesn’t help.

    • That’s an interesting observation. I don’t think this phenomenon is particularly a “thing” in North America…but official tourism campaigns have definitely been a factor in producing a substantial uptick in visitation to certain areas–the Utah national parks come to mind. And, since more people almost by definition increases the chances of degradation…

  3. Agree in full Kerry. The landscape photography community especially needs to be reminded of our stewardship responsibility for the very special places we visit. It’s sometimes hard to avoid doing damage to vegetation while seeking a composition, our first responsibility though is to the environment as a matter of policy and principle regardless. As you suggest, if that means missing the shot, so be it and recompose or move on. “First, do no harm” is a good policy for us to follow in regard to moving in and around precious landscape.

    As you know I live and photograph in a national park with very large tourist visitation and unfortunately ample evidence of environmental damage as a result. People sometimes just don’t seem to care or feel responsible. Until a larger sense of environmental stewardship for our shared “commons” is developed society-wise we’re likely to see this kind of thing. Enforcement can do only so much, personal responsibility must be shared and encouraged.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    • Thanks very much for weighing in, Gary. I completely agree with your sentiments.

  4. I’ve been watching this trend develop for decades. Here’s a video that makes your point pretty well: It seems to be reaching a crescendo. Though it’s hard to imagine where it will all end.
    Unfortunately, I’ve been seeing signs of the same even here in our more remote location. I never mind sharing these beautiful areas, but having to walk past human excrement (dog poop is bad enough!) on a path down to the beach is beyond sad.

    • You’re right, this is a longstanding trend and its direction doesn’t inspire confidence. As others have stated, a growing culture of stewardship is desperately needed.

      • I can only hope I live long enough to see the pendulum swing.

  5. Thank you Kerry for this well-timed and important notice. There are other rules specific to wildlife photographers in the same vein. I repeat, bicyclists and dog owners, this applies to you, you are not above the law, although some of you act as if you are. There are good stewardship programs geared toward children and they are good at teaching adults better thinking and practice. I know the parks want to draw people to the sights in order to have more people enjoy and love these areas but I think we need more staff that will charge people for breaking the law while feeding or harassing animals, or natural areas. I have gone on hikes to the tops of mountains or meadows to find spectacular views spoiled by candy wrappers, discarded bottles and cigarette butts.

    • Thanks, Jane. I would love to see more monitoring, but I can’t say that I’m sanguine that the increase in resources that would be needed to call hire more staff will be forthcoming. I think that most of the work is going to fall upon us, directly.

  6. Full ack!!!

  7. I’m in agreement with the spirit of this, but it seems to me that Gordon takes it too far with #2. Frankly, I can’t imagine stepping around or over EVERY plant I encounter. Grass? Sorry to take it so literally, but he loses me with unrealistic statements like that. Where I live anyway, there are plants that are OK to walk on, carefully, and those that aren’t. One should try to learn the difference. I could never walk around my own yard if I followed that rule. While I’m on it, #3 and #7 have the same problem for me. The other day I moved a pine needle about three inches, out of the frame, because it was so much brighter than everything else. I did not damage the landscape. I understand the principle of trying your best to leave things as they are, but once in a while I do move a pine needle, a stick or a leaf, a very short distance, after consideration. It would make more sense to me to try to get the point across in a less extremist manner.
    I appreciate your bringing this important matter up though, and also that you hope we won’t give in to an inevitable sense of decline.

    • I think the plant entry was written with a desert visitor’s sensibility in mind; perhaps it should be written a bit more narrowly as there certainly are locales where it’s effectively impossible not to tread on some sort of plant. As for #3, I don’t interpret the directive to make it unacceptable to gently (and temporarily) move a tall blade of grass or a branch out of the way or to move a stick from one place to another or something like that. Again, perhaps a bit of an edit is in order to clarify. Same goes for #7–that should probably be clarified as well.

      Thanks for pointing these things out. I think the key, in the short term, is to follow the spirit of these “commandments,” if not the literal letter of them.

      • You’re right, it’s the spirit of them that counts, I just get a bit literal sometimes! 🙂

  8. Hello there. Enjoyed this article. By the way, have you seen the movie titled Leave No Trace? It’s very good. I write about it in my latest essay. Take care.

    Neil S.

    • Thanks for the comment. I have not seen the film you mentioned; I’ll try to take a look at your post when I return home from Alaska.

  9. […] recently opined that it was, in part, up to photographers to engage directly in the process of limiting impact on […]

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