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The Newly Proposed 8th Leave No Trace Principle


Aaron Zagrodnick

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In recent years concern has risen in some circles of the outdoor community regarding the impact that sharing hyper-specific location information can potentially have on specific outdoor places and wilderness. While this has always been a topic of discussion in the outdoor community over the years, the more recent popularity of social media has made it easier to post something like the coordinates to an obscure place, and potentially overwhelm it with visitors in a near instant time frame, at least when things are viewed through the lens of "wilderness time". Some have even called for the creation of an 8th Leave No Trace Principle to address the concern.

On the other side, others believe that geotagging and offering other such specifics are meant to be shared and encourage others to get outside and explore, and / or that those not sharing location specifics are engaged in what's been dubbed "gatekeeping". Much of this debate revolves around social media. However, while social media can certainly amplify the issue and the debate, the issue is a broader one and not just limited to posts on your favorite social platform. While I think we can all agree that more people need to get outside, what's the answer? The answer I think, is a bit ambiguous. Side note: for further reading and a great perspective on these issues specifically related to social media, be sure to give Paul Magnanti’s article Keeping Wild Spaces Wild: The Ethics of Social Media, published in Issue 36, a thorough read.

8th LNT

As far as an 8th Principle is concerned, the proposed 8th Leave No Trace Principle was created as a conversation starter, but a couple examples of a possible principle are provided on the 8thLNT site:

“Be mindful when posting on social media and consider the potential impacts that rapidly increased use can have on wild places”

As well as:

“Use discretion when posting on social media and consider the potential impacts of creating a ‘buzz’ about specific destinations”

Having seen firsthand the effects that media and social media can have when excessive attention to a specific spot or specific route can have on our limited wilderness areas over the years, as well as the detrimental effect that wild places can suffer without any publicity, exposure, and advocacy on different occasions as well – this is an issue I’ve thought about frequently and is an issue that colleagues and I have discussed on many occasions. The answer, for better or worse, doesn’t seem to be black and white, and it seems that it may all come down to a delicate balancing act.

Protecting Wilderness

One immediate and initial concern here is of course, the very short term, limited benefits, and long term hazards that keeping a general place secret, so to speak, can have. The proposed principle however, is not about keeping secrets; in fact the very core of the principle itself is about spreading the word. It’s also about inspiring current and future generations to recreate and protect our wild places, while instilling a sense of stewardship for these very places and for the outdoors. Without knowledge of these places comes the lack of support that these wild places need. And while greater regulation and enforcement is appropriate in some scenarios, and education always appropriate, do we really want all of our backpacking trips to begin with a lottery? And sadly, no matter how much effort we put into educating (and this is by no means an excuse to limit those efforts), unfortunately there will never be a time or place where all visitors will follow all of our leave no trace principles, and some places can only support so much use while maintaining their existing wilderness character. A wilderness area, or wild location, that’s at an equilibrium between its wilderness character and its usage, is in my mind a worthy goal.

Wilderness Backpacking Ethics

Lone tree, Craters of the Moon National Monument

Relative Impact

There are impacts to be aware of for all wild places; those close and far, those easily accessible, and those that are remote. What it comes down to is the character of each place, and the preservation of that wilderness character; each destination is unique. The character of a remote wilderness location that only sees a dozen visitors a year would be significantly changed by a dozen visitors per summer day; and likewise with hundreds of visitors seeking out an easily accessible waterfall or hot spring that’s just a mile in from the parking lot. Not only do thoughts surrounding this discussion seek to physically protect these wild places, but I think we can all agree that there’s much more to wilderness than at first meets the eye. It’s these qualities as a whole, some starkly apparent and others just a subtle whisper, that we should work to preserve. That character may be in the eye of the beholder and admittedly is a bit different for us all, but it’s up to us to preserve every aspect, for everyone and for the place itself, in these public spaces.

Getting Specific

If the newly proposed principle has any concerns to be addressed, I can only say that I feel it might be too specific in its current state of existence. There are many other forms of media that can have an equal, if not more significant impact than even the most popular Instagram account. Anything from movies, books, and websites can all be looped into this discussion and whether you’re a website owner or run an Instagram account, we all share in the responsibility of both 1) protecting our wild spaces through advocacy and 2) performing point 1 without bringing harm to those places we’re advocating for. A principle addressing social media, inclusive of social media, would cover and consolidate all bases from my standpoint. Either way however, it’s great to see the awareness and any aspect of these issues being discussed and potentially implemented.

Proposed Eighth Leave No Trace Principle

With many points on the subject having merit, when it comes to wilderness location ethics balance is needed.

The Balance

In the end, it’s all about finding a balance. Paul Magnanti of PMags.com has dubbed this “Obscurity, not secrecy”. Mark Wetherington of 8thLNT terms it “Be mindful when posting”. I like to think of it as a focus to: “Name the place, not the spot” – for example perhaps name the land management unit or area, but consider saving those coordinates, the exact location of that amazing campsite, or maybe the name of that lake or exact canyon for yourself. This doesn't prevent someone else from finding a great campsite or place to explore – they might even find something better. Back to it being relative, each place and situation is unique. And while naming names is one thing, providing the step by step directions along with it takes things to another level – there is definitely a way to go about promoting wilderness, and specific wild areas, without specifically impacting exact locations. I would argue that preservation of wilderness and of wilderness character itself, is above all the most important aspect to consider.

As a typical fisherman who often brings along a fly rod on backpacking trips for example, I’ll surely tell you that there are big trout to be caught in that mountain range, but I’ll probably be a little more general when it comes to which lake. And there’s nothing like finding your own lake, your own favorite trail or campsite, and grabbing the map and hiking your own route to experience our wilderness areas all in our own unique way…those have been my most successful, satisfying, and memorable wilderness experiences.

Sharing Information About Wilderness on Social Media - Ethics and Principles

Although I use my smartphone when planning trips, it can be difficult to get the big picture view on a small screen, and following a pre-loaded route limits imaginative exploration. Paper maps very much still have their place and hopefully always do (more thoughts here), and it's not about anyone "keeping the gate". Pick up the state atlas of your state or the one you're looking to explore and suddenly you have a lifetime's worth of places on your destination list. Get the overview map for the wilderness area you're targeting, and in an instant you can explore wherever your hiking shoes can take you. With the right map, wilderness offers a spot for everyone.

As far as principles go, the difficulty of summing up a complex issue in a sentence or two on a list of principles has inherit complexity, and while I'd like to think we should all individually hold ourselves responsible for leaving no trace without a checklist, a set of guidelines accepted by the outdoor community as a whole is certainly very beneficial and a very teachable tool – and I hope these concerns will continue to generate discussion in the outdoor community. But whether a new principle is added to the list or not, we should all take it upon ourselves to keep it wild.

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Balancing act indeed.  Without public use and appreciation for backcountry/wilderness it isn't going to get any support from  government agencies, congress, or the general public.  It is a given that with increasing population we are going to see more use.  And as much as I hate to say it, we should encourage that to the maximum extent possible, including use of social media.

And hopefully I can still find places to get lost------

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Aaron Zagrodnick

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Thanks grizzled, and without a doubt that awareness and appreciation now and in the future is exactly what these places need. Not about spreading the word less, but more about how we do so. 

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