Sheena Harper Photography

Please Leave No Trace in Our National Parks During the Shutdown

Here are a few tips on how to visit a National Park during the shutdown if you absolutely must…

First of all, it is going to be very difficult to responsibly visit the parks right now. Since December 21 visitors have been flocking to our national parks with visitor centers and other facilities closed. I know I would not enjoy visiting a national park in the condition they are in right now. I don’t recommend this, but I am not here to judge. I simply want to get some good information out to the public.

Instead of pointing fingers about how this happened and why the parks have remained accessible without staffing, please just help the situation! Who knows how long the parks could be in this position. If you are not lucky enough to live close to a national park to join a volunteer group to pick up trash, but want to do your part to save parks from further damage help get information on the seven Leave No Trace principles out to everyone you know. Not only is it important right now, but they are straightforward guidelines that everyone should follow in a variety of settings all year long to keep our parks clean and safe.

grand teton national park in the fall

As an adventure wedding and lifestyle portrait photographer with a degree in Outdoor Leadership, it was a no brainer to become a certified Leave No Trace trainer early in my career.

Leave No Trace (or LNT for short) has always been close to my heart, and now more than ever I am feeling the need to get the word out. Many of you know that I actually give an abbreviated Leave No Trace talk at the beginning of the hike at all of my photo shoots. (The 7 LNT principles were also the first thing I taught students on the backpacking trips I led as a student for Colorado State University in Pueblo.) But what many people don’t seem to know is that Leave No Trace is much more than the title of a 2018 movie filmed in the Pacific Northwest. LNT is a set of outdoor ethics created for protecting and preserving the environment that you are recreating in. A simple way to minimize your impact and enjoy our beautiful public lands in a sustainable way today that will ensure they will be kept pristine for future generations. I realize that not everyone will hold themselves to the level I do, but it seems like there is a lack of information out there, so I would like to share what I know.

There are seven key Leave No Trace principals are…


  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare

This principal is first because it is the most important one. My clients always know that planning any elopement anywhere in the great outdoors comes with the inherent risk of nature changing their itinerary completely. Part of planning ahead and preparing is having a plan B! Making alternate plans is a must when planning any type of outdoor event anywhere. Also, and let someone know where you’re going. I’ve shook Aron Ralston’s left hand and I know he wishes that he told someone where he went on the fateful trip in 2003.


  1. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Many people seem to be completely unaware that the ground is very fragile and alive in some places, (like at high elevations on the alpine tundra and low elevations on the cryptobiotic soil) and stomping your hiking boots all over it will kill it. Stay on trails, don’t tread on delicate ground and don’t make new campsites.

  1. Dispose of Waste Properly

Unfortunately, many of the park facilities are locked right now. Sometimes nature calls when you are out in the natural world and the excess waste that is being left behind is causing significant damage.

During my Environmental Leadership Internship with the Rocky Mountain Field Institute I lived and worked in a remote mountain basin for 30 days straight, with no real bathroom. If you’ve never pooped in a bucket or a bag, this is your lucky year. Sure, you can dig a 6”-8” cathole at least 200 feet from water and trail to bury your poop and TP in (don’t forget to bring a trowel), but if everyone does that there are going to be a lot of people pulling their pants down in the woods. Fortunately you don’t have to use your water bottle. Many outdoor retail stores sell portable toilets and biodegradable, disposable toilet-in-a-bag-type products. If you must visit a national park right now during the shutdown arrive prepared.


  1. Leave What You Find

What you see in the park stays in the park, simple as that. Except for trash. Plan ahead and prepare to pack everything you bring in back out and then some. Packing out what you bring in is a key part to LNT and keeping clean parks. But also be sure to bring extra trash bags to pack out trash in the park that isn’t yours. I have packed out some of the most disgusting things you could imagine finding 10 miles deep in the back-country of park, and for that I was thankful to have enough bags to triple bag it, because I couldn’t just leave it there.


  1. Minimize Campfire Impacts

Don’t make fires where they don’t belong, or better yet just don’t make a fire at all.


  1. Respect Wildlife

People have a hard enough time with this one while rangers are present, but it is more important than ever right now. It’s not only for your safety, but the safety of the wildlife as well. Don’t approach wildlife, and if they notice you that means that you are already too close to them.


  1. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

This is going to be tough right now, but if you see visitors behaving badly please kindly provide them with the proper guidance on how to enjoy the parks the right way.

They can also be found on the Leave No Trace website at:


The government shutdown should not be a free-for-all to disregard the rules and abuse some of the most amazing places in our country. I can’t believe the things that have happened while rangers are actually in the parks, like at Old Faithful in 2018. Now there are reports of unsupervised park visitors doing even more unsanitary and irresponsible things in the parks, leaving very poor examples of how to behave. Mature adults should not need oversight by rangers to clean up after themselves. We shouldn’t have to have staff present in the parks to tell us how to act and treat our national treasures; we should treat them with respect, as if they are our own lands, which they are. This is completely embarrassing; we should clean up after ourselves whether anyone is watching or not. These places federally protected for a very important reason. Our national parks are irreplaceable national treasures.

Now that you know the seven principals, you must have integrity and uphold these ethics and set a good example for the visitors who may come after you.

As a past National Park Service Ranger, I am passionate about preserving America’s Best Idea, The National Parks (also a 2009 documentary by Ken Burns). I believe that ultimately the most responsible thing we can do to protect and preserve our beloved national parks and federal lands is to set the example for others and stay out. The irreparable damage that is happening to some of the most majestic landscapes in our great country is completely preventable. The best recommendation at this point is to find an alternative place to recreate while the shutdown is still in effect, to prevent further harm to our precious national parks. Please temporarily explore alternative locations for your vacations and adventures, in parks that are not federal land. If you care, please don’t exasperate the problem. Do a little research and visiting new state lands or parks instead. Who knows, you may even find a place you like better and that turns out to be less crowded.

It is going to be an inconvenience, trust me, I know. I just drove by over 10 national parks over the past 3 weeks and for those of you who know me, I don’t ever drive past a national park! But this time I did. It really weighed on me, but I want to lead by example. My baby was going to start his very own National Parks passport book, but now his book is empty for 2019.

Use extreme caution if you choose to ignore my advice and enter a national park during the government shutdown. Even if you follow the LNT principals to plan ahead and let someone know where you’re going, and bring your ten outdoor essentials it’s really not a safe idea. The websites are not updated with information about the conditions the parks are in and some could be outright dangerous. Besides, accidents happen and in many parks there are no emergency services or law enforcement available.

Please encourage everyone you know to stay out of the national parks during the government shutdown and find a new location because unsupervised visitors can potentially cause irreversible damage and permanently disrupt fragile ecosystems without the proper information and education, like the Leave No Trace principals.

To enjoy the outdoors responsibly, we must respect nature, wildlife and other visitors. Please set a good example with your actions and “Be the change you wish to see in the world” – Gandhi

Who knows how much longer this will last or if the agency could even enforce a closure at this point.

The most important thing we can do is educate others on how to do the right thing – please share this article with the Leave No Trace principals and guidelines with all of your outdoor adventure enthusiast friends and family now because caring for our public lands and parks is all of our responsibility!

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  1. Such a wonderfully useful blog post, especially with everything that has been happening with your government recently. For a National Parks Photographer such as yourself, protecting areas like the Tetons for future outdoor adventures for years to come is vital. Well done!

  2. I love that you posted this Sheena! As a fellow photographer and someone who does most of their work in our beautiful National Parks I couldn’t agree more with the guidelines you give.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this! Great info not only for National Park photographers but all visitors!

  4. Can I just thank you for sharing this? All visitors at all times need to make sure they leave no trace…and leave it better then they found it!

  5. This is so necessary right now more than ever. Thanks for an amazing write on leave no trace

  6. Love that you posted this, it’s so so important. Thank you for sharing this leave no trace information, our national parks are such treasures!

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