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Is ‘leave no trace’ bad for conservation?

First Published      Last Updated May 27 2014 03:54 pm

Did you ever pick a wildflower? Build a stick fort? Stray from the footpath while walking in the wilderness?

In an article at Slate, author Emma Marris argues those nature-marring childhood joys, while contrary to the modern 'leave no trace' ethic, help children bond with wilderness and create adults that value its conservation.

Marris consults park rangers, authors, research and government officials in search of a balance between enjoyment and overuse of public wild lands. A study in 2010 showed that adults who are passionate about conserving nature likely spent their childhood playing outdoors, often in ways that were "not environmentally sensitive by adult standards."

Some of Marris' more hot-button questions deal with how hard children should play on high-traffic sites like those managed by the U.S. National Park Service, the toughest rules-keeper out there. There are lots of kids who barely experience nature except for the occasional family trip to an NPS site, Marris points out. Does it suppress their love of nature to corral them onto pre-worn footpaths? Would they be more likely to cherish these wild places as voting adults if, as children, they were allowed to follow their imaginations into nature and use what they find there to create stories, solve problems and make themselves at home?

Marris doesn't want to "let kids skateboard on the arches at Arches," but she says setting aside some kid space for play would be a reasonable concession.

As a nature-lover who grew up cutting trails, building forts and lashing clovers together as a trespasser in private woodland, I can't deny the importance of that interactive, unsupervised play in nature. It started an addiction.

But I'm not everyone, and there is one important voice missing from Marris' article: that of actual, present-day children.

Do kids have a bad impression of Bryce Canyon because they can't climb off-trail around the rocks? Do they go home remembering being told "No"?

Or do they just incorporate the restraints of stewardship into their expectations? "Yeah, it'd be fun to make a rope swing at Arches. It also would be fun to topple a goblin, but that's not going to happen either." Do they get so excited about what they CAN do within the bounds of leave-no-trace that prohibitions are forgotten? After swimming The Narrows, is it a loss not to have a patch of flowers to pick, too?

Are kids today missing out on true intimacy with the outdoors, or are they just learning to behave better than we did? What do you think?

More importantly, what do your kids think?

—Erin Alberty