Leave no Trace – Leave what you find

Scouts have, since their beginning more than 100 years ago, been involved in conservation and stewardship and naturalism – but there are lots of things that Scouts (and indeed all outdoorsmen and naturalists) have done in the past that might not be exactly kosher in today’s environment.

There’s no need to beat ourselves up about the outdoor practices of our forefathers, but as Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you know how, and when you learn better, do better.”

Here are some traditional Scouting and naturalist activities that might merit re-thinking, given modern environmental challenges and issues.


  • Leaf collecting – a historical staple of botanical education was to collect leaves and either press them in a leaf press or make crayon rubbings of them to preserve an image for later study.  The problem with this is each leaf that we tear from a tree creates a tiny injury – a small opportunity for infection. Sure, this is probably no big deal, but what if each person that visited a popular site (like Shiloh, for instance) picked 1-2 specimens of some particularly distinctive leaf (like a Tulip tree)?  That would easily be enough to denude and kill all the Tulip trees at Shiloh.  With an advanced cameraphone in every person’s pocket, there is simply no need to take leaves and sample plants with you.  And if you do decide you want to preserve the traditional skills of pressing and rubbing leaves – consider going in the Autumn and picking fallen leaves.


  • Insect collecting -A similar argument can apply to the traditional insect collection – a staple of both Scouting and High School biology classes.  For generations, kids have been required to catch insects, anesthetize them in a jar with a cotton ball soaked in nail polish remover, and pin them to a foam board neatly labeled.  There is no real moral dilemma here because there is virtually no chance that humans could genocide any species of insect through collecting – but it is simply unnecessary.  With a camera phone, a naturalist can take much more interesting and useful images and video than whatever data you could wring from a dead specimen.
  • Rock collecting – As with insects, we are probably not going to be able to remove all of a particular mineral from the Earth through collecting, but by removing rocks and minerals from their natural context we are reducing the potential for future naturalists to observe those minerals in that context.   What if every visitor to the Petrified Forest took a sample with them?  Pretty soon it would just be another stretch of desert. We can also, through rock collecting, disrupt the habitat of small animals and we can set up conditions favorable for erosion.


  • Collecting arrowheads and musket balls – This is one form of collecting that is fascinating to me personally.  I would love to be able to put together a collection of found arrowheads or musket balls like some collections I’ve seen from years gone by, but by removing these things from their context it becomes impossible for archaeologists to use that context in their studies.
  • Building pioneering structures – One of the most fun activities that I remember from my days as a Scout more than 30 years ago is using rope and sticks to build structures like towers and bridges.  Since then, folks have realized that it’s probably not a good thing to chop down all the 1-inch saplings in an area to build a structure and then leave the structure there to become a falling-in danger and annoyance to other passers-by.


  • Building cairns – Probably the one activity that provokes the most passionate knee-jerk reactions of any of the above examples.  I’m not kidding, you can get kicked out of a lot of Facebook groups and other forums just by mentioning the word, “cairn.”  While I don’t think it’s that big a deal, it does change the landscape and it can rob tiny creatures of their habitat and create erosion problems as well as being a terrible annoyance for some folks.
  • Trenching around your tent – This was a given back in the day.  If there were to come a rain in the night, you would want to have cut a ditch around your tent so that water would not flow into your tent.  However, you can easily keep dry through a combination of better site selection, placement, and/or equipment.


In the words of the Leave No Trace Foundation, Leave what you find –

  • Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch cultural or historic structures and artifacts.
  • Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects as you find them.
  • Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species.
  • Do not build structures, furniture, or dig trenches.

Categories: Adventure, Conservation, Nature

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