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White River National Forest

Innovative work helps struggling natural areas

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posted September 29, 2018
Leave No Trace is an international movement, nonprofit organization and education program dedicated to protecting the outdoors by teaching people to enjoy it responsibly. The organization delivers cutting-edge education and research to millions of people across the country every year.

Despite the long, steep hike to reach it, Conundrum Hot Springs in Colorado’s White River National Forest had over 6,000 visitors last year. But due to its popularity, this high alpine area’s delicate tundra ecosystem began facing serious impacts: Bears trolled the area for food, human waste lay exposed, plants were trampled and user conflicts were on the rise.

Also, 11,200-foot Conundrum Hot Springs had gained a reputation as a beautiful outdoor place to party. The overcrowding, alcohol abuse, illegal fires, litter and out-of-bounds camping were taking a toll on the area, leading the U.S. Forest Service to enlist the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics for help.

Through one of its key programs, Hot Spots, the center is able to provide a spectrum of Leave No Trace solutions for troubled natural areas across the country.

The Hot Spots program identifies areas that are suffering from the severe impacts of outdoor activities but can thrive again by following Leave No Trace solutions. Each location receives a unique blend of education programs, service projects and follow-up activities. With site-specific Leave No Trace tools in place, these areas can get on the road to a healthy and sustainable recovery.

To date, the Leave No Trace Center has conducted more than 60 Hot Spots programs around the country. The areas range from national to city parks and are chosen from hundreds of nominees. Last year, the center supported 20 areas with 163 educational sessions and related events, removing 2.5 tons of trash and enlisting 1,800 volunteers to support the work.

“The real strength of the program is that it isn’t a one-and-done cleanup project,” according to Dana Watts, Leave No Trace’s executive director. “Our researchers and expert education teams, the Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainers, are very responsive to the specific issues each area is dealing with. They construct a Leave No Trace program that directly addresses the struggles of the area, and they monitor implementation to ensure recovery is in play.”

At Conundrum Hot Springs, an area that in 10 years has seen a 285 percent increase in visitation, a Leave No Trace education team worked on solutions with U.S. Forest Service personnel, the public and the Forest Conservancy, a large volunteer group that supports White River National Forest. For a week last year, Leave No Trace trainers led not only workshops and trail maintenance efforts but also helped develop new messaging for the area. They devised custom programs for the public as well as management techniques that were designed to support the health of the area while preserving the visitor experience.

After the initial week of on-the-ground work, the Leave No Trace Center continued to consult with the U.S. Forest Service and will provide another session at Conundrum late this summer.

Making this work easier to accomplish are the Leave No Trace Center’s longstanding partnerships with the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, all of the major federal land management agencies, the state park system and others. In fact, the Leave No Trace Center just forged a groundbreaking partnership with the Colorado Tourism Office to work with them on imbuing Leave No Trace basic skills during trip-planning stages of the outdoor experience. The center’s staff plans to replicate the Colorado Tourism partnership in additional states.

With 11 billion visits to public lands in the United States each year, and with nine out of 10 of people uninformed about how to conduct themselves to protect the environment, Leave No Trace still has much work to do. For now, focusing on Hot Spots is a great way to make a lasting difference. Yet having more people who take it upon themselves to learn and practice Leave No Trace skills will be the game changer for our beloved natural world.

Susan Alkaitis is the deputy director of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. To learn more and get involved, visit

Top photo: Hiking in Colorado's White River National Forest
Photo by CC Flickr/Micah MacAllen: