As someone who spends a lot of time camping in the backcountry, I feel like I need to start this post with a disclaimer: whenever I leave a campsite, I pick up all trash I find, including the tiniest of microtrash, and I carefully consider my impact. I almost never make a campfire. I also understand that the phrase “Leave No Trace” (LNT) is supposed to be powerful as a slogan in its simplicity.
At the same time, I believe the message that the popular environmental slogan conveys is impossible to achieve, and worse, it plays into the idea that the only real “wilderness” is that which is free of humans and any human impact.
It sets people up to fail. To truly “leave no trace” in the wilderness would be impossible. Even the Center for Outdoor Ethics (the organization that administers the LNT educational program) acknowledges this by referring to their mission as “to assist outdoor enthusiasts with their decisions about how to reduce their impacts…” (emphasis mine) Having a campfire (and burning fallen wood) leaves a trace. Eating berries leaves a trace. Almost all ways to dispose of human waste in the backcountry involves leaving a trace. Bringing a dog into the woods leaves a trace. Fishing leaves a trace. Certainly there are wilderness areas so sensitive and/or so over-visited that perhaps not a single berry should be eaten. However, the notion that the “ideal” to aim for is a wilderness free of impact, free of fishing and fires is elitist. It favors people who bring along expensive pre-packaged meals of factory-farmed food to cook on tiny, expensive backpacking stoves. It makes it easy to judge people and helps play into the idea that camping involves specialized knowledge and skills, and lists of rules to follow.
It puts too much emphasis on the more cosmetic issues of wilderness protection, and not on broader problems like social justice and global warming. I’ve heard international travelers speak of how “the locals” in the country they visited did not properly respect their land and littered upon it. Yet absent from the discussion was the impact of the traveler’s own airplane trip over to that country, the gas used to fuel their rental car, the manufacturing processes involved in outfitting them in their modern backpacking gear. This type of condescension makes it easier to justify displacing people from their land in other countries in order to “protect it” from them for our benefit without thinking of the social impact that such land preservation can have.
It helps erase our history. We like to hold onto the idea of a time before settlers when the land was “virgin”, and truly free of all of our “trace leaving”. But the implication that Indigenous people did not have any impact on the land erases their history and robs them of agency. Many of the areas of land that struck European settlers as examples of the “pastoral ideal” had in fact been previously farmed, burned, hunted, and lived upon by Native people prior to European arrival. There is a vast history of violence and dispossession in the formation of our national parks and wilderness areas, something we see little evidence or acknowledgment of today. Perhaps we should have left more evidence of the human occupation in our parks… that of Native people, that of other settlers, and that of the conflicts between them, so that we could better understand our own history. We often pick and choose what type of impact we find acceptable, what history we want to remember. For example, we venerate the ancient pictographs in Voyageurs National Park but frown on modern-day Ojibwe people who are exercising their right to fish within wilderness areas (see State of Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians).
Perhaps I’m pointing too much misdirected energy at a phrase designed and used with good intentions, after all, surely there are real problems linked to careless campers. However, as William Cronon pointed out in “The Trouble with Wilderness”, there is real danger in oversimplifying, of venerating only the most “edenic” of natural places, of believing that certain environments are worthy of protection, and believing that there are “right” and “wrong” ways to interact with the wilderness.