Leave No Trace

Words: Jill Macdonald

Leave No Trace. As a premise for wilderness travel, leave no trace is an excellent guardrail. We should be able to look back from where we came and not see obvious signs of our passing. No disturbed soil, broken foliage or trees; no garbage, discarded food or remnants of our stay. Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is an international organization based in the US that protects the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly. The Center accomplishes this mission by delivering cutting-edge education and research to millions of people around the globe every year.

Horseshoe Bend, Arizona is an example of the Center’s work. A distinctively shaped meander of the Colorado River located near the town of Page, Arizona, Horseshoe Bend is a stunning, colourful vista within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. A short hiking trail leads to a steep cliff where the river bend can be viewed 300m below, a breathtaking, potentially vertigo-inducing sight. Hematite, platinum, garnet, and other minerals pigment the rock walls, set off by the river’s distinctive symmetrical sweep. For clear reason, the overlook at Horseshoe Bend has captured the hearts of millions of visitors.

In recent years, the number of cell phone images taken at this spot and shared on social media is staggering. During the year that Instagram launched (2010), Horseshoe Bend saw 100,000 annual visitors. By 2018, visitation numbers reached 2,000,000. Two million! That’s a huge leap in just eight years. The popularity of the images on social media seems to have played a big role in igniting such rapid response. Unfortunately, with this sharp increase in visitation came a corresponding increase in impacts: trash discarded in the bushes; unauthorized trails meandering from the parking lot; and other signs of overcrowded conditions.

The link between the arrival of Instagram and the surge in visitors appears to be clear. While not villains, Instagram and other social media outlets can have negative effects. This winter, Leave No Trace sent a team of staff members to investigate ways to lessen the impacts at Horseshoe Bend. Out of that visit grew the idea to create a new Citizen Science program to gather information that could help generate solutions.

Since cellphones seem to have played a role in boosting the area’s popularity, there is some irony in one of the solutions the team proposed: to equip visitors with cell phones to record their observations of impact on the area. Putting a white cape on handheld technologies, citizen scientists are asked to capture images and feed them into the program, hosted by CitSci.org. CitSci.org provides the pathway for this data to reach land managers, scientists and local stewardship groups who can then make informed decisions. Rather than blasting observations into social media outlets, the results can be compiled and as patterns emerge from the images, new solutions can be implemented. More trash cans, recycling containers, new official trails to stem the spread of social trails.

Horseshoe Bend is among the first locations selected by Leave No Trace for this type of Citizen Science investigation. The site’s social media stardom is not likely to dissipate anytime soon, but with a growing body of data about where the impacts are concentrated, as well as when the peak visitation periods occur and other measurable factors, the hope is to create the best possible strategies for reducing impacts.

Leave No Trace’s goal is to encourage people to enjoy and explore the natural world while learning how to minimize problems. By working together, we can help preserve our wilderness and its beauty for generations who will follow. More information can only help.

Learn more about Leave No Trace by visiting lnt.org/get-involved/every-park/citizen-science. 

In 2019, Arc’teryx partnered with Leave No Trace through it’s “In My Backyard” grant program by donating $25,000 to the organization to support the continued efforts of its Citizen Science program.