Maximize Your Experience, Minimize Your Impact: Leave No Trace in Maryland State Parks
If there is one thing that the global pandemic has shown us, it is the value of fresh air and open space. Visitors to Maryland State Parks cashed in on that value in record-breaking numbers in 2020. At the same time many businesses, attractions, and sporting events were restricted or shut down, state parks in Maryland saw a 45% increase in visitation last year, and 2021 is on track to meet or exceed these unprecedented numbers of park visitors.
While it is a wonderful phenomenon that many more people have discovered the great opportunities that our 75 beautiful state parks have to offer—many for the very first time—this trend has brought with it some significant challenges. The sheer number of visitors, compounded with a relative lack of experience in outdoor, resource-based recreation, has led to significant increases in litter, trail damage, parking issues, user conflicts, and other resource impacts. Although the adage “loved to death” might seem cliche, it truly applies to some of our more heavily impacted natural areas.
However, land managers and park professionals are not panicking—nor should our visitors. If we all work together, we can prevent re-source degradation. The men and women of the Maryland Park Service realize that the vast majority of our visitors love and care for their parks, and would not intentionally do anything to harm them. And since a significant number of novice outdoor enthusiasts could benefit from a better understanding of their impacts on the environment, we bring out our most effective tool in the chest—education.
Once people better understand how their actions can affect the environment, they will know how to better care for the parks and open space they have come to love. Park rangers across Maryland are therefore ramping up efforts to teach visitors to Leave No Trace. Through a longstanding partnership with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics Inc., located in Boulder, Colorado (LNT.org), the Maryland Park Service is making efforts to increase visitor understanding of several simple principles that will help them make responsible decisions to better minimize their impact, while maximizing their experience.
The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart. – Shozo Tanaka
The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace are quite simple, and they start, very logically, with planning ahead of time.
Principle #1 • Know Before You Go: Before you visit, you should plan ahead and prepare for any special considerations or regulations that might restrict your activities in a particular park or area. Check the website of the park you are visiting for up-to-the minute information. You should also make sure you have the necessary skills and equipment to safely enjoy your time in the outdoors. Proper preparation is the most important first step to minimize your impact.
Principle #2 • Stick to Trails and Camp Overnight Right: Whether you plan an overnight adventure in one of our fabulous campgrounds, set out to hike one of our spectacular trails, or perhaps a combination of these fun family activities, please remember this second principle. Maryland public lands feature more than 1,000 miles of trails. A great deal of science and engineering goes into determining the safest and most sustainable route and design of these trails. We ask all hikers, bikers, and equestrians to stay on these designated trails for their own safety and to protect trailside plants. Likewise, our campgrounds are designed to accommodate a wide variety of campers and equipment, while seeking to protect the surrounding vegetation and habitat. Campers should camp only on existing or designated campsites to avoid damaging vegetation and keep their camping equipment on the provided camp pad.
Principle #3 • Trash Your Trash: One of the most challenging aspects of outdoor recreation is what to do with waste. More than 25 years ago, in an effort to reduce the amount of trash and unsightly receptacles, Maryland State Parks removed their trash receptacles and began asking visitors to “pack it in and pack it out,” or take their trash with them. While this remains the standard in most areas of our parks, it’s understood this may not be practical in some busier day use areas, but we ask that when you do not see trash receptacles, please take your trash with you, otherwise dispose of it properly in a nearby receptacle. In most locations, you will find convenient bags to pack your trash out with you.
Principle #4 • Leave What You Find: Maryland’s parks are full of beautiful natural wonders and significant historical resources. These natural and cultural resources should be protected for everyone to see and appreciate. Leave plants, rocks, and historical items as you find them so others can enjoy them. Treat living plants with respect. Carving, hacking, or peeling plants and trees may open them up to infection or kill them.
Principle #5 • Be Careful with Fire: Who doesn’t love a good campfire when spending the night in a nice, quiet campground? Fire is a great part of any outdoor experience but it’s also potentially the most dangerous. Use a camp stove for cooking. Stoves are easier to cook on and create less impact than a fire. If you want to have a campfire, be sure it’s permitted and safe to build a fire in the area you’re visiting. Use only the existing fire rings to protect the ground from heat. Keep your fire small. Trash should never be burned in a campfire, as the resulting scent can attract unwanted close encounters with wildlife in the campsite. Instead, secure your trash and pack it out or place in a proper receptacle. Finally, burn all wood to ash and be sure the fire is completely out and cold before you leave.
Principle #6 • Keep Wildlife Wild: One of the greatest thrills of outdoor adventures is to see a variety of wild animals most people would not normally see close to home. However, remember that these parks provide great habitat for a diverse community of wildlife. This is their home, and we are only guests. Observe wildlife from a distance and never approach, feed, or follow them. Human food is unhealthy for all wildlife and feeding them starts bad habits.
Principle #7 • Be Considerate of Other Visitors: With an ever-growing number of people seeking healthy outdoor activities, it becomes even more important that visitors respect each other and give each other the space to enjoy the resources in their own way. Be sure the fun you have outdoors does not bother anyone else. Remember, other visitors are there to enjoy the outdoors, too.
As more and more people discover the benefits of outdoor activity and the great opportunities that visiting parks and open space can bring, it is important that every-one does their part to help protect these wonderful resources. These outdoor ethics will help people make the best decisions to minimize their impact and make sure these beautiful places remain safe and protected for generations to come. Please do your part in Maryland State Parks and always strive to leave no trace.
Steve McCoy is the Central Regional Manager for the Maryland Park Service. Article appears in Vol. 24, No. 3 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, summer 2021.