As a child growing up in Idaho, my family and I made several trips to near-by Yellowstone National Park. I remember finding ancient petrified wood and thinking how great an addition it would make to my growing rock collection. Seeing me place some in my pocket to take home, my parents got down to my level and taught me an important lesson that if everyone took some of this out of the park, eventually there wouldn’t be any left for anyone to enjoy. I reluctantly put the fossilized wood back but took home something more valuable – the lesson of leaving it better than I found it.
Flash forward some eight years and I was a young scout in Oregon on an adventure hiking in the Mt. Hood wilderness. As you can imagine a group of 14-year-olds at the end of a long day, we complained that our legs hurt and we were ready to set up camp. We came across a camp that had been used the night before littered with all sorts of trash. Despite our complaints of fatigue and hunger, our scout master made a point to make it a teachable moment. I remember his words well: “Boys, I know you’re tired and want to get to our camp, but first we need to leave this spot better than we found it.” After some initial grumblings, we all took off our backpacks and cleaned up the camp. Our complaints eventually turned into accomplishment as we placed the trash in our packs and left the campsite better for the next occupants.
In recent years our public lands and National Parks have become more popular than ever. More and more people are discovering our amazing wild places and are encouraged to adventure and experience these grand environments for themselves. I am all for that, and I believe, much like Ed Abbey and other noted environmentalists, that nature is a necessity and is good for the soul. But as the number of people in the outdoors increases, too many reports and examples to list show vast amounts of garbage and graffiti left in campsites and the trails.
If you grew up in the 80’s like me you might remember Woodsy Owl with his catchy tagline, “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute.” These days you don’t see much of our old friend Woodsy, but the problem of litter in our parks persists. Organizations like Leave No Trace have been working hard to educate the public, and reminders of “pack it in, pack it out” are often seen at trailheads and campground posts. But despite all these efforts, the problem is still there. Because of this, I encourage people to “Leave It Better Than You Found It,” just as my scout leader encouraged me to do so many years ago. It is up to those who are responsible to do some of the heavy lifting and clean up after others and in some cases help with restoration efforts to trails, campsites and other damaged areas.
Leaving it better calls for a proactive approach to ensure that these places are preserved for generations to come. Let’s be honest, it’s not fun cleaning up after other people. It is not enjoyable to have dirty, smelly garbage in your bag or car from some other person. It isn’t ideal to take time from your camping trip to clean up trails and other places. But if we want to have continued access to our wild places, I believe these actions are more than necessary. I’ve started to put gloves and garbage sacks in my own bag everywhere I go to make sure I’m prepared to leave it better and have even found my kids take every opportunity now to clean up garbage they find. (Now if I could just get them to clean their rooms!)
While I could go on about the subject, I hope that the simple phrase of Leave It Better Than You Found It is self-explanatory. I do believe that by small means, we can bring about incredible things and help to turn the tide of this sickness. My challenge to you, wherever you are and especially in public lands, National Parks, and wild places is that you leave it better than you found it.