Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Science Behind the Skills

Have you ever been asked any of the following questions and didn’t know the answer?

• “Why do I have to wash my dishes 200 feet away from water sources?”
• “Does Leave No Trace change visitor behavior?”
• “Why should I not cut the switchbacks on the trail?”
• “Do resource conditions improve over time because of Leave No Trace?”
• “Why do I have to hang my food in bear country?”
• “How long does it take an apple core to decompose?”

If your answer is yes, you’re not alone. While the seven Leave No Trace principles are fairly straightforward and simple, the science behind them is esoteric and often difficult to find. When the Leave No Trace program was started, there was minimal science to back up the recommendations. However, as the program has matured and grown, so too has the body of science that reinforces the seven Principles.

The fields of science that the Leave No Trace program most heavily relies on are:
1) Recreation Ecology – the study of recreation-caused impacts, which looks at ways those impacts can be reduced by land managers and recreationists; and 2) Human Dimensions of Natural Resources – the study of visitor perceptions, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors, and gives insight on how to promote long-term behavioral change and adoption of best practices. Scientists who are associated with universities and colleges or in some cases, individual agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Geologic Survey or the National Park Service, carry out Leave No Trace-related research.

Over the years, many studies have been conducted to look deeper into various aspects of the Leave No Trace program, which continue to yield improved information and understanding of both outdoor enthusiasts behavior and the associated impacts. This allows for the dissemination of the most up-to-date techniques for minimizing recreation-related impacts and provides guidance for dissemination of Leave No Trace information to the recreating public. Some titles of Leave No Trace-related research include:

• Disturbance of natural vegetation by camping: experimental applications of low-level stress.
• Backcountry Visitors’ Leave No Trace Attitudes
• Recreation impacts and management in Wilderness: A state-of-knowledge review.
• Communicating Leave No Trace Ethics and Practices: Efficacy of Two-Day Trainer Courses
• The fate of feces and fecal microorganisms in human waste smeared on rocks in an arid environment and its impact on public health.
• Recreational trampling experiments: effects of trampler weight and shoe type.
• Recreation impacts in some riparian forests of the Eastern United States.
• Frontcountry Leave No Trace Program Evaluation: outdoor education, litter, dogs and behavioral change.
• A project to survey visitor behavior and receptivity regarding proper disposal of human waste in the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado.

For more information or to obtain copies of any of the research projects mentioned above check out the research section of the Center’s website, which is perhaps the most comprehensive listing of Leave No Trace-related research available on the web:

Consider visiting the following websites for additional research findings:

Now the next time someone ask you why a particular Leave No Trace recommendation is made, you’ll have the answer or at least know where to look for it!

-Ben Lawhon

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