Each summer, I hear concerns about open spaces and wild places being loved to death. I hear this concern from members of my local community, from communities I get to work with as part of my job here at Great Ecology, and from friends scattered across the country.
This has been especially true during the pandemic when people’s travel options have felt or truly been more limited—and as more people have turned to the outdoors to get in movement and time with friends and loved ones (both during the pandemic and in general).
Loving an area to death can look like a lot of different things, including:
• Trail widening from people trying to pass one another on a trail or to avoid stomping in a muddy puddle (generally it’s better to just go straight through the mud rather than contribute to trail widening);
• Trampling of native plants and/or fragile habitat, including (and sometimes especially) wildflowers, tide pools, and dunes. This can be especially visible in areas that are popular social media photoshoot destinations, but also in areas many people wouldn’t even notice if it’s not a habitat they’re familiar with;
• Evidence of waste, including human and dog poop, litter, and food products (like banana or orange peels);
• Creation of user defined trails, which may harm local ecosystems such as dunes, plant communities, and habitats (like stream banks), or lead to further degradation of unstable shores or cliffs; and
• Noise / Traffic, both noise and traffic can refer to the noise and traffic we make as people (chatting as we hike in a group for instance), and that our vehicles create.
Of course, there are many other ways an area can be loved beyond its ability to sustain itself (even with support from parks crews)—and many more impacts I don’t name here.
But the point of this blog isn’t to belabor the ways an area can become degraded from significant use.
Instead I want to talk about what we can individually and collectively do to help curb the behaviors that lead to the degradation of ecosystems to many of us love to visit—because I also believe that loving a place is key to wanting to protect it and people can’t love what they don’t know, a sentiment shared by many and phrased a lot of different ways (including by Richard Louv and David Attenborough, among others).
Awareness is a key aspect to helping people recognize that an area is potentially being loved to death. If you’re a person who frequents a given trail, park, open space, or specific habitat you might already notice the changes it undergoes over the course of a season or year—and the how human impacts generally differ from natural shifts. This might look like changes to the shape of a beach or dune, vegetation density along a trail, shifts in a trail caused by a slide versus shifts in a trail caused by trail widening, as just a few examples.
If you’re not already noticing those things, noticing them for yourself is a great place to start. If you are aware of them, you can also begin to (gently, lovingly) point them out to people who are out in nature with you. I frequently point out evidence of trail widening as I walk through the puddled or muddy part of a trail and encourage others who are hiking with me to avoid trail widening too. If I know that whoever I’m hiking with is receptive to more information, I might talk about why this matters—including things like soil compaction, erosion, and vegetation disturbance. This may also include being mindful—for yourself and your outdoor companions—of staying clear of areas where restoration is under way or seasonal closures. Young plants can be easily trampled, for instance, and some seasonal closures exist to support wildlife migration or reproduction.
As part of building awareness, you might seek to learn more about the ecosystems you most often visit—and what it means to help steward or protect them. Many areas have formal stewardship programs that you can join (which often come with some degree of training), which may lead to opportunities to engage in restoration of that place or helping others visit it with more care. But in some cases, it might just mean becoming better educated, including through self-education, on what ecosystems are especially fragile (such as alpine areas, vernal pools, areas with unstable geologic features, and tide pools).
You might also seek out opportunities to take one-off naturalist courses where appropriate interactions with ecosystems is often a key component of the lesson—and will help you see more facets of the natural world, some of which you might have overlooked. You can also learn from books, local experts, and ecologically minded organizations (such as your local chapter of the Native Plants Society). This learning will help you more mindfully interact with the ecosystem and may offer you strategies to improve you “leave no trace” ethic or why the best way to steward some of these spaces is to work toward its permanent and more formalized protection (often through conservation or preservation efforts).
In addition to building awareness, you can also vote to increase funding for open spaces, trails, parks, and other green areas, both in your community—and more broadly (think in your county) and choose to support candidates that want to better fund green spaces and natural areas. If you happen to have wealth, you might also consider making donations to support green spaces (which includes appropriate funding for staff to keep them in good order and to implement restoration projects). I even know someone who is planning to donate their land to their local community after they die to be utilized as park space. There are a lot of ways you can use your influence to directly support the health of the green spaces you love.
If you’re in a place to make decisions for a local trail, open space, or other well-loved natural area you might be able to help create online and/or in-person materials that can help people be aware of the impacts they have on a space. Local to me, I’ve seen:
• Park stewards talking to people about tide pool etiquette;
• Reminders to pack out all waste (which are sometimes posted online and at almost all trailheads);
• Blue bag / wag bag programs for alpine areas, along with signs explaining the importance of these bags;
• On a related note, signs and social media posts about how “cat holes” are not appropriate for alpine areas due to the fragility of these ecosystems;
• Social media reminders to hike straight through muddy areas of trails;
• Educational signage about the fragile ecosystems of dunes; and
• Barriers to discourage people from walking on fragile ecosystems or areas being restored (typically with a succinct sign explaining why visitors are being asked to keep off).
Finally, you can be mindful of your impact in big and small ways. This ranges from staying on the formal trail rather than taking a narrow offshoot (which is likely a “user defined trail” or game trail) to not adding to an already overflowing garbage bin at your local park to making sure you wipe off your footwear before and after hiking a trail (to help reduce the spread of invasive plant species) to properly cleaning your boat if zebra mussels or another invasive species is present in some of your local water systems—which helps reduce the spread of those species to other water systems to exploring your own parks and trails—rather than traveling to someone else’s. I guarantee there are things you haven’t seen and that you can find, if you just turn on your nature eyes. If you want to learn more about this last part, stay tuned for my upcoming blog on this via a book review of Nature Obscura.