It’s disgruntling to step into your home and find that your guests have scattered a plethora of wrappers, plastic bottles and cigarette butts around the house. It’s even worse to find out they deposited their bowels in a nearby corner rather than making it to the toilet.

This might never have happened to me personally, but the feelings that would have arisen from an event like it reminds me of those I felt wandering through beautiful swaths of wilderness that were disrespected and vandalized this past year.

More and more people have been finding sanctity in the outdoors as COVID-19 halted city life. I believe everyone should have access to the outdoors and the opportunities that come with it. However, utilizing our environment requires respecting it too.

National parks saw a dramatic influx of domestic tourists in 2020. Even though many parks shut down periodically during the initial wave of COVID-19 and many foreign tourists did not travel because of the pandemic, the National Park Service reported an estimated 237 million visits in 2020. Although this is less than the previous year, it is still an incredible amount of visitors given the setbacks the parks faced.

Even outside of national parks, general camping and outdoor travel saw an all time high in domestic travel. According to Sunset Magazine, Dyrt —a paid membership camping app— saw a 500% increase in subscribers. Campsites were booked out months in advance, remote areas were crowded with people and new campers rushed outside with very little knowledge or experience.

As a result of the influx of outdoorsmen and -women, many places were vandalized. One of my favorite destinations, City of Rocks National Reserve, is home to Camp Rock —a rock emigrants carved their names into as they passed through Idaho during the westward expansion. It has years worth of history engrained on it. In less than a month, this rock was covered in graffiti. 

Many other places dealt with graffiti, but they also dealt with incomprehensible amounts of trash, feces along trails and in campsites, defacing of natural areas and damage to vegetation and ecosystems.

Although new campers should have the opportunity to gain experience outside, the damage caused last year shows that many newcomers need to learn and practice elementary levels of respect for the outdoors. The “Leave No Trace” campaign perfectly documents seven fundamental principles everyone must practice to move in the outdoors respectfully: Plan ahead and prepare travel, camp on durable faces, dispose of waste properly, respect wildlife, minimize campfire impacts, leave what you find and be considerate of other visitors. The people who return to wild areas year after year can see the impacts that humans have on the environment and know it is up to them and their behaviors to minimize these impacts. Other people might not have mentors to teach them how to respect the environment, but they are still responsible for the damage they cause.

It does not take much effort to hop onto Google and look at where you’re going to camp, what you’re going to do and how you can do it in a way that preserves the natural area. Even experienced campers have to research the areas they are traveling to in order to make sure they are prepared to be in those areas and treat them with respect.

Unfortunately, I believe people who vandalize areas by purposely spray-painting them or breaking them won’t whistle the tune of respect no matter how much you try to teach them. Not only is this incredibly frustrating to the people who have their hearts attached to our natural areas, it’s also sad to know that the beauty of nature can’t deter people from destroying it.

It is up to the majority of people, including you and me, to do their part. As spring comes, pick up after yourself, hike in areas where you won’t damage the fauna, pack your poop out and please, leave our home beautiful.