Hold it. Put your cell phone back in your pocket please, and step away from that posing bison. I'm talking to you too, caught red-handed reaching out to pick that pretty orange wildflower. Before you take that selfie or Instagram that gorgeous bouquet you have in mind, I'd like to talk to you about some important guidelines for ethical behavior in parks and national wildernesses.
I hope you've heard of Leave No Trace, but if you haven't, I'm going to introduce you. The seven Leave No Trace principles describe simple habits you can cultivate to be a better guest in nature, with the goal of conducting yourself in wild places so respectfully that no one would be able to tell you'd even been there.
Leave No Trace covers everything from how to take care of yourself, how to take care of everything you bring in (which should come out with you), and to how to behave toward wildlife and wild spaces. Easy stuff like, don't feed the animals. Don't pick the plants. Don't mark trees, geographic features, or historical buildings. Don't move rocks, fossils or historical artifacts from where you find them. Seems like common sense, right?
Ehhhhhh maybe not. My Instagram and Facebook feeds regularly blow up when someone behaves badly in our national parks and shares the evidence. I've seen everything from graffiti bandits leaving their signatures on millennia-old canyon faces to bouquets of rare wildflowers picked from desert wildernesses.
I probably sound like a killjoy. What's the harm in a wildflower bouquet? But it goes back to one of the main priorities of national parks, preserves, and wildernesses. These natural areas are meant to be safe places for wildlife to thrive, because there are so few wild places left. Think about it: you're likely to find more biodiversity in a national park than you find in your town park because of the sheer scale of the land, and because these places have been carefully selected, preserved, or restored for biodiversity. Plants, insects and birds found in our parks may not be found anywhere else, and that means that each one counts.
Each individual flower plays a crucial role in supporting the ecosystem. The plant needs the flower to to produce the seeds that will grow the next generation. The butterflies and bees need the flower for nectar and pollen. The caterpillars and other insect young depend on the plant and its descendants to feed them through their larval stage until they can metamorphose into adulthood and reproduce. Birds need the caterpillars that eat the plants to feed their chicks. Bears eat the berries that the flower produces, and herbivores from mice to moose seek out a variety of plants to supply well-rounded diets.
Each plant is carefully tuned to have a specific flowering period, and some plants only live a single year. Each flower requires significant energy for the plant to produce. So every wildflower bouquet could mean at least 20 plants that don't set seed that year. The resulting tally could be a few dozen new plants that don't grow the next spring.
Now multiply that by millions of visitors each year. Even if 90% of national parks visitors are on their best behavior, you can see how each wildflower bouquet adds up.
The story is similar for wild animals, but the dead-end is more sobering. Every encounter with humans, whether it involves food or a close-up selfie, decreases the animal's natural avoidance of people. These animals can become nuisances, lose their caution around roads, or worse, cause an injury to someone. Animals that become problematic are often killed for the safety of park visitors.
The effects accumulate, and the consequences for wildlife and wilderness are huge. Park rangers, naturalists and volunteers do a lot of outreach and education, but they can use all the help they can get. It's even harder now when everyone is even more aware of, and perhaps influenced by, other people's bad behavior online.
What can we do? Be familiar with the Leave No Trace principles, and follow them whenever you're in a wild place. Go ahead and share photos of those beautiful wildflowers, but make a point to leave them attached to their plants. Tell your friends, too. Even more important, set a good example, and pass the message on to kids. They're the next caretakers of what we leave behind. We can start teaching them how to respect and protect the wild places and wild life we love now, and hopefully we'll catch on fast enough ourselves to leave everything in good shape when we leave.
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share.