Leave No Trace Principle 4 – Leave What You Find

Leave No Trace Principle 4 – Leave What You Find
A deer shed is shown along a trail in the Ouachita National Forest

This is the fourth installment of an eight-part series where we are really diving deep into the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics’ Seven Principles. In this post, we are discussing Leave No Trace Principle 4 – Leave What You Find.

This is one that you are probably fairly familiar with thanks to the old adage “Leave only footprints, take only pictures.” It’s also one we’ve probably all been guilty of breaking. I’ll admit that I have. But with a better understanding of Leave No Trace Principle 4 – Leave What You Find – you’ll be more mindful when you think things like, “It’s only one rock, flower, etc.”

When I took my Leave No Trace Trainer Course at the Buffalo National River, Park Ranger Lauren Ray showed us a great way to help visualize this principle. It’s also a great way to teach it to others. She had a picture that was cut into puzzle pieces. We passed the completed picture around and each one of us took a piece. It was just one piece, but as the puzzle made it way around the circle the image was unrecognizable.

That is a great way to see the impact of taking just one piece. It’s not the lack of that one piece, it’s the collective impact from all the people before and after you.

Newspaper is shown along the walls of an old building at the Buffalo National River. Leave No Trace Principle 4 – Leave What You Find tells us to leave things like this for others to see.
Newspaper is shown along the walls of an old building at the Buffalo National River

The main reason you should leave what you find is that you are merely visitors of the natural space. And you want others who visit to have the same experiences and feelings as you do.

Leave No Trace says to observe it, photograph, and then leave it.

So beside the cumulative effort of millions of visitors, there are many other reasons why you should practice Leave No Trace Principle 4 – Leave What You Find.

A fossil is shown in the Ozark National Forest
If someone before had taken this fossil, I would have never been able to see it

Jeffrey Marion writes in his book, “Leave No Trace In the Outdoors” to teach children not to pick flowers because it prevents the development of seeds. He notes an example from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There they found significantly fewer pink lady slipper orchids around trails than away from trails.

It’s also tempting to collect pets, such as box turtles. By doing so is like giving them a death sentence. Although box turtles can live more than 100 years in the wild, they only survive a year or two in captivity.

Is it ever OK?

Sometimes, I guess, it is OK to take what you find. But it’s only OK if the park or forest says it’s OK.

The main example of this would be hunting and fishing. When you hunt deer or other game, you are technically taking from the forest. However, hunting is regulated by a game and fish and agency and is extremely well planned out. Hunting also helps prevent overpopulation.

The beach on Cape Lookout National Seashore is shown littered with seashells.
The beach on Cape Lookout National Seashore is shown littered with seashells.

Foraging is also OK, but only if done responsibly and within the regulations of the park or forest. Again check with the forest or park for the proper regulations. If taking a small amount of berries or nuts is OK, then you may collect them.

But also remember that you are taking what animals depend on for food and the plants depend on for repopulation, so you only want to take a small amount.

When I visited Cape Look National Seashore in North Carolina, I debated on whether we could collect seashells.

Remember Leave No Trace Principle Number 4 – Leave What You Find,” I argued with my best friend. “We cannot collect seashells.” But when we arrived on the barrier island, the park stated it was OK to collect seashells. I ate crow. But I found some pretty nice ones.

Historic and prehistoric artifacts and fossils

There are many old homesteads along the Buffalo National River, some even along the hiking trails. Imagine if everyone took a piece of the old homestead home with them? At a popular park like the Buffalo National River, it wouldn’t take long before the old homestead was completely gone.

Leave No Trace Principle 4 – Leave What You Find
Remnants of the past along the Snowy Range in Wyoming

Marion writes in his book, “Historic resources are those more than 50 years old, and include structures, equipment, and artifacts from old mining, logging, or homestead sites.”

There’s no regrowth with these. When we damage historic, prehistoric, or fossil sites, that damage is permanent. Removed artifacts are irreplaceable. When they are damaged or stolen, they are gone forever.

Granny Henderson House is shown along the Buffalo National River. Leave No Trace Principle 4 tells us to leave artifacts that you find
Granny Henderson’s Cabin along the Buffalo National River

Marion says, “The Archeological Resource Protection and National Historic Preservations Acts make it illegal to disturb archeological or historic sites or remove any artifacts – including potsheds, arrowheads, mining tools, or antique bottles.”

Avoid the spread of non-native invasive species

Sometimes we take what we find without knowing it. Take the white-nose syndrome in bats for example. The fungus is transported by humans by it getting on their clothes and boots. Say a person goes into a cave where the fungus is present. Then the person goes into another cave wearing the same clothes and deposits the fungus there to infect the bats who live there. This is a real problem that is killing off bats as it spreads west.

While hiking in Michigan I saw a boot cleaner for the first time. The cleaners are a way to get the mud and debris off you boots, saving your vehicle from a mess and the next place you visit from unknown hitchhikers.

You’ll want to be sure you always start your hike with clean clothes and boots to prevent the spread of anything. It is also a good idea to wipe down your boat when exiting a waterway as well.

Transporting firewood is also highly discouraged. When you bring firewood, even across county lines, you run the risk of introducing insects and diseases that can devastate a tree species.

Leave No Trace Principle 4 – Leave What You Find

This principle is really a simple one. Just remember, the wonderful experience you are having should be preserved so others can enjoy the area just as much as you do.

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Leave No Trace Principle 4 – Leave What You Find helps us preserve natural spaces for others who come after us to enjoy the same as we do.

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