by Alivia Acosta, ATC National Service Coordinator

Communicating the Protection of a Beloved Resource

Spring has arrived and the forest is beginning to bustle again with activity. Bears are coming out of their dens, birds are returning to their northern ranges, an array of colors decorate the forest floor as flowers begin to bloom, and the temperature is finally warm enough to cherish a breeze.

You decide to hike up to a local A.T. summit one Saturday afternoon. As you arrive at the peak your heart begins to sink as you find that the summit of your favorite mountain top is swarming with visitors. It is so crowded that nearly everyone has stepped off the designated path and they seem to be absentmindedly meandering all over sensitive alpine vegetation. Your gut reaction is to yell at everyone telling them to stop what they are doing, return their trampling feet to the durable surface of the Trail, and respectfully descend from the summit.

To you this summit is precious, it is your place to find connection; this summit is revered by an Indigenous community. You are more than aware that each tiny plant and lichen under the feet of the swarming visitors are all connected to the center of the surrounding landscape. With each trampling footstep, the common names of each dying plant species runs through your head and you remorsefully smile as you think about the attributes that make each plant so spectacularly special.

Anger quickly turns into despair as you realize that you have no authority here, you have no fancy badge or law enforcement back up. But, you do however have something far more important. Your love of exploring this landscape and learning about its environment provides you with the knowledge you need to convey the authority of the resource to these visitors.

Luckily, a recent workshop from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has provided you with the tools you need to effectively communicate the importance of the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles.

Thanks to that workshop you know that people need two things to influence their behavior, the first is a basic understanding of the natural world and the second is an understanding of the impacts created by their actions. You also know that if you begin conversing with a few of these visitors and cordially begin to understand where they are in their understanding of those two key behavioral influencers, that you just might be able to provide them with a compelling reason as to why they should alter their actions.

From that same workshop you also learned that even if you had law enforcement capabilities on this summit, that approach may only alter those visitors’ behaviors for a brief moment, whereas taking the time to provide them with an intrinsic “why” is at least five-times as more likely to change their behavior in the future as well.

You grab your summit snack from your pack and you walk over to the nearest group of visitors. You smile as you walk near them and stand a distance away, you are all looking out at the view and as you are munching on your snack you begin to chat about their hike with them. From that LNT workshop you know you have to build a rapport with these visitors and your body language is crucial. You were taught that standing face to face during these conversations is not always the best approach and you know that the shoulder-to-shoulder conversational style allows for each party to keep their attention on what is at stake, the resource.

Soon enough, the time is now or never to make your move. You have one shot at this interaction that will eventually influence how these visitors accept future interventions. You think back to that one fellow participant who during the workshop mentioned “Do not shake a finger at someone unless you want a fight.” You focus on keeping your objective statement away from the individual group and say “I noticed a lot of people are off the Trail today.” The group looks around and agrees with you. You then look at the ground and begin to explain the fragility of the plants and the consequences that are faced by people walking all over them. The group of visitors listen intently and as time goes on and topics change eventually they pack their stuff and head for the Trail. They all share a smile with you as they walk away and you watch them head down Trail. You noticed that as each of them found their way back to the Trail they were being mindful of where they placed their feet and walked as though they were trying to leave a lighter impact on the land thanks to their new knowledge in hand.

You turn your view to the vista and then to the remaining crowd of visitors on the summit and their trampling feet. The sun is high in the sky and the breeze is frequent and light, you look in your backpack and find it serendipitous that you have plenty of snacks and water remaining. You walk over to the next group of visitors; it is Saturday after all.