The Miseducation of Leave No Trace - Policing Black and Brown Bodies in the Outdoors

Felt cute, might delete later.  Photo courtesy of    Cornell Watson Photography

Felt cute, might delete later. Photo courtesy of Cornell Watson Photography

The other day, I uploaded a photo to Instagram. In it, I am sitting on a dead tree that has fallen across the trail. I am beaming outwardly and holding loosely onto my elbow crutches. I’m half-way through my first hike since ankle surgery a few months ago, and it feels like a proud moment. Inwardly, however, I am cringing at the thought that someone on social media might misinterpret this photo and attack me for stepping off the trail and violating Leave No Trace. I chose to delete the photo, just to be safe. The entire process was anxiety inducing. So how did we get to this point?

Yesterday, I had a great conversation with Melanin Base Camp writer, Nadia Mercado, about how, recently, it seems more and more that Leave No Trace (LNT) is being misused to police black and brown bodies in the outdoors—whether it’s people, who have never once commented or posted in support of diversity in the outdoors, suddenly swarming our Instagram to attack a woman of color for feeding a bird—or white folks writing hateful op-eds railing against geotagging and influencers who are apparently ruining the outdoors.

We saw this in late 2018 at Joshua Tree when the decision to keep a national park open during a government shutdown led to overflowing toilets and piles of trash. We saw this more recently during the poppy super-bloom at Lake Elsinore, California. Even NPR Code Switch host Gene Demby and Sam Sanders happily delved into the fray on “It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders” with the assertion that Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles is now literally populated “every hundred feet” by “women “doing the [skinny thick, hiking goddess] thing” with several people around her taking pictures” thanks to athleisure lifestyle brands like Outdoor Voices. Yes, if you check out #runyoncanyon, you will find photos of glowed-up brown bodies living their best life...in color block crop tops and leggings—so what?

If the question is “what would I do for the gram?” The answer is everything.  Photo courtesy of Danielle Williams

If the question is “what would I do for the gram?” The answer is everything. Photo courtesy of Danielle Williams

It’s a strange sensation because the same folks who refuse to geotag and who hate on millennials for flocking to Runyon Canyon—the angry commenters who decry urban hikers for stepping off the trail and inadvertently crushing wildflowers at Lake Elsinore, don’t seem to have a problem with placing bolts in granite or chalking up sandstone or limestone. And of course on a larger scale, they don’t seem to have an issue with inequitable environmental policies which disproportionately impact black, brown and indigenous communities. They are noticeably silent—which sort of begs the question, are you trying to protect nature or are you just angry that black and brown bodies increasingly have access to the outdoors?—and that we’re “doing it wrong?”

If you are black or brown in the outdoors, are you feeling the increased pressure to “perform” Leave No Trace principles for Instagram?—pressure to signal to the disproportionately white LNT police on social media that you’re “one of the good ones?”

“Hey guys, I just want you to know I did not leave any established trails on my hike, because that would violate LNT.”

Okay, but did you pee and defecate in the middle of the trail while hiking? My guess is you didn’t—especially since that would violate the third principle of Leave No Trace. So you did step off the trail. Keep in mind that the same racist trolls who are so eager to police your social media for LNT offenses are spending their own weekends hiking, skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry where staying on established trails is the last thing on their mind—only to reappear on social media Monday morning in time to police black and brown folks for transgressing at local and state parks. Why does it feel so arbitrary?

Hanging out on a footbridge at Rocky Gap State Park on Haudenosauneega Confederacy ancestral land. I’m still on the trail; just so you know, I’m “one of the good ones”  Photo courtesy of Danielle Williams

Hanging out on a footbridge at Rocky Gap State Park on Haudenosauneega Confederacy ancestral land. I’m still on the trail; just so you know, I’m “one of the good ones” Photo courtesy of Danielle Williams

So what if we refused to allow trolls to dictate our posts and instead took a common sense approach to LNT. What if we were realistic; because sometimes you will leave the trail.

If you are part of the LNT police, consider this: if the only time you care about black and brown lives is when you feel the urge to tell us that we are “ruining Nature” you need to sit down. If you think social media is bringing the wrong type of people to the outdoors, you need to check your privilege—being white does not entitle you to personal ownership of public lands. Being brown, or “urban” or however we get coded in the hateful diatribes on social media doesn’t mean we don’t belong there.

Your racism is not helpful in this discussion.

A lot of the “overuse” issues when it comes to public lands are going to require creative, non-racist solutions. Consulting indigenous communities who have stewarded the land for millennia is a good place to start. Increasing funding for the National Park Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and for the Bureau of Land Management is a good second.

Overcrowded national park in your backyard making you angry? Okay, well, maybe your state should rethink where they spend their advertising dollars and try marketing equally beautiful state parks instead to divert tourists away from overcrowded “crown jewels.”

Leave No Trace principles require education. If you were privileged to grow up learning this stuff that’s great. If you grew up in the mountains with your grandparents who have always had access to the land whether through personal ownership or because segregation, lynchings, genocide and sundown towns didn’t impact them, that’s awesome. Take your enthusiasm and your dollars, lose the racism, and pour them into education. Support local outdoor non-profits and conservancies. Bring a trash bag along with you and clean-up your favorite trailhead, or waterfall, or summit. But please drop the moral superiority towards “urban hikers.”

And stop viewing influencers as the problem. They’re not. But they do offer creative solutions. Government will have to adapt to meet the challenges of the digital age—including high levels of demand inspired by a perfectly framed shot at Bryce Canyon or Lightroom enhanced ‘sunset heart hands’ at Point Reyes. That means injecting scalability into local government budgets and staffing so they can quickly scale up or down to meet the boom bust cycle of demand for outdoor spaces.

If you’ve grown up in rural America or cash-strapped counties in the coastal southern United States you’ve probably already seen this: it looks like mutual aid agreements & resource sharing between contiguous counties. It looks like public private partnerships and working alongside non-profits and conservancies to educate the public. It looks like working with influencers to help educate the public. We need creative solutions, but you can hold off on the racism. We don’t need that.