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The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics - For Public Lands or For Profit?

If you've spent any time in the outdoors, you've probably heard of the Leave No Trace principles and may be aware of the non-profit organization Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics which "manages" the principles.  If you have, the title of this article may have surprised you.  Read on.   

Let's start the beginning. (Skip down a few paragraphs to the TL;DR (Too Lazy; Didn't Read) if you’re short on time). 

The American public has always had an obsession with the outdoors, perhaps a remnant of westward expansion from the early days of the country.  However, as more people abandoned their rural roots for cities and suburbs in the early to mid-1900’s, the desire to reconnect with nature grew stronger.  The increasing reliability and popularity of the automobile made it possible for these new urbanites to travel to outdoor recreation areas in their leisure time to escape the hustle and bustle of the cities.

From 1960 to 1980, the number of privately registered vehicles in the United States nearly doubled from 61.4 million vehicles to 120.7 million vehicles.  During this same time frame, visitation to public lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS) increased from 71.6 million visitors to 220.5 million visitors, a three-fold increase.  The result was a noticeable degradation of public lands and the land management agencies began independently brainstorming how to mitigate the effect of increased visitation.

Vehicle ownership vs National Park Visitation

These agencies independently developed brochures during these years with names like “Wilderness Manners”, “Wilderness Ethics”, “Minimum Impact Camping”, “Tread Lightly”, and “No-Trace Camping”.  The US Forest Service (USFS) staged Wilderness Information Specialists at popular sites to educate visitors.  These strategies toward visitor education morphed into a more formal “No-Trace” program that eventually led to the production of a pamphlet in 1987 titled “Leave No Trace Land Ethics" that was cooperatively developed and distributed by the USFS, NPS, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) (Marion, 2001).

In 1990, the USFS approached the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to develop a written Leave No Trace educational program.  The two organizations formalized their partnership with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), essentially stating that the two organizations would work together on the issue.  NOLS developed the basics of the Leave No Trace program including ethics, educational curriculum, and a 5-day LNT Master Educators course, which was first taught in 1991.

In the next few years, the NPS, BLM, and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) formally joined the partnership with NOLS, signing a new MOU in 1994, which “committed the federal agencies to provide overall steering and direction for the national program, with NOLS supplying curricula, training, and the development, distribution of LNT information” (Marion, 2001) and development of the original eight (yes, eight!) Leave No Trace Principles.

Although NOLS did a great job getting the program off the ground, it became clear that the federal agencies were not in a position to solely fund the LNT program, and the decision was made to involve outdoor product

manufacturers, retail stores, and other organizations. 

original eight Leave No Trace Priciples

The original eight Leave No Trace Principles

In November, “1993 an outdoor recreation summit was convened involving NOLS, the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America (ORCA), the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association (SGMA), and other outdoor manufacturing representatives.  At the summit, these groups assessed their support of the LNT program’s partnership concept and the creation of a non-profit organization.” (Marion, 2001).

LNT, Inc. was registered as a 501©(3) non-profit educational program in 1994 and rapidly gained momentum with the support of 24 agency, commercial, and non-profit partners.  Fund-raising dominated the organization’s agenda during the initial years.  Seed money to start LNT, Inc. came from NOLS, SGMA and ORCA. By 1996 the organization had two full-time staff and a budget of $108,425 supported largely from 35 outdoor recreation manufacturers and retailers. The organization’s structure includes a Board of Directors, LNT Partners, and LNT Members.  The bylaws established a Board of Directors as the policy-setting arm of the program.  The Board numbered eight individuals in 1995, representing the federal agencies (non-voting), NOLS, science, and other non-profit organizations.” (Marion, 2001).

 (The majority of the information above, including a number of direct quotes, comes from “Development of the U.S. Leave No Trace Program: A Historical Perspective” published in January 2001 by Jeffery L. Marion and Scott E. Reid.  A link to the entire document is included here.)

TL;DR: The idea and phrase Leave No Trace was created by federal land management agencies in the 1980’s, refined and expanded by National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in the early 1990’s, and the Leave No Trace Center (LNT, Inc., Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics (LNTC) was founded as a non-profit in 1994 by the outdoor recreation industry including the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America (ORCA) and the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association (SGMA).

I know that was A LOT of history, but I feel it was necessary to set the stage for everything to come.  There are a number of issues at play here, but lets first start with LNTC’s ties to the outdoor recreation industry. 

The LNTC was founded and funded primarily by the outdoor recreation industry, which is not an inherently bad thing.  In fact, it seems to be a natural progression.  Outdoor recreation companies have an interest in protecting public lands so that people like you and me will want to visit them in our leisure time.  Many activities that take place on public lands require specialized equipment, be it shoes, tents, watercraft, skis, jackets, headlamps, stoves, water filters, etc.  However, if our public lands are trashed, no one will want to use them, and the sales of outdoor recreation equipment will decrease.

However, what was originally a unique partnership between a non-profit organization, federal agencies, and the outdoor recreation industry has morphed into a more rigid corporate structure.  The federal agencies, which originally had seats (albeit non-voting) on the Board of Directors, have been cast aside and given the title of “Agency Advisers”.  Meanwhile, the Board of Directors has grown to 13 people, most of whom are heavily intertwined with the commercial outdoor recreation industry, with connections including Vail Resorts (Julie Klein), REI (Jed Paulson & Scot Briscoe), Urban Outfitters (Jed Paulson), Keen (Chris Enlow), Fjallraven, Obermeyer, Spyder (Nathan Dopp), Erwin Hymer Group (largest manufacturer of Class B motorhomes in the US, Antonio Gonzalez), Taxa Outdoors (Cricket camper trailers, Antonio Gonzalez), Aramark (one of the largest National Park concessionaires, Allison Gosselin), Point6  (Merino wool sock manufacturer, Skip Rapp) and the list goes on and on.  LNTC does have a conflict of interest policy, however repeated requests to see their conflict of interest disclosures were ignored.

Considering that 10 of the 13 Board of Directors (77%) have ties to outdoor recreation based corporations, it’s not a surprise that of 72% of LNTC’s $2,209,876 revenue in 2018 came from Corporate Partners like Subaru, Eno, Keen, Aramark, Deuter, L.L. Bean, Arc’teryx, Thule, Klean Kanteen, Taxa OutdoorsREI, Fjallraven, Clif Bar, Outdoor Research, North Face, Columbia, Big Agnes, Osprey Packs, Jansport, Marmot, Yeti, and a whole host of others. Note the companies in bold, which have ties to people on the Board of Directors.

2018 Leave No Trace center revenue streams

** Dollar amounts extrapolated from chart on page four of the LNTC 2018 annual report, and using data from the LNTC’s 2018 990 “Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax” form.

Let me reiterate, I think it’s great that companies in the outdoor recreation space are stepping up and giving money to the LNTC, but I think there is CLEARLY room for a conflict of interest here.  For example, let’s pretend a LNTC corporate sponsor that contributed $879,641 in 2018 (or 39.8% of LNTC's total budget) last year is advertising in a way that clearly shows less than Leave No Trace behavior.  Do you think LNTC is going to call out that enormous corporate sponsor on that behavior and encourage them to advertise in a more responsible manner?  Or do you think they might look the other way to protect that nice big check that they get each year?  

Let me help you answer that question.  That big corporate sponsor is Subaru, and yes, Subaru did contribute $879,641 toward the LNTC’s revenue in 2018 in the form of $56,625 in Fair Market Value vehicle leases and $823,016 in cash.  So when Subaru often advertises with images like the ones below, do you think the LTNC is going to speak up?  How about when Columbia posts content showing people off the trail and stepping on fragile  vegetation where a perfectly good, durable trail is available? Or when REI advertises their products with a influencer who deletes Instagram comments from the official Mount Rainier National Park IG account encouraging her to respect alpine meadows? 

Leave No Trace Center Suburu Corporate sponsor, less than leave no trace behavior
Leave No Trace Center Columbia Corporate sponsor, less than leave no trace behavior

Subaru advertisements, one showing a car much too close to wildlife, the other with a car parked in a mountain stream.

Columbia ad showing people off trail on fragile vegetation, when a perfectly good trail is available.

Leave No Trace Center REI Corporate sponsor, less than leave no trace behavior influencer

REI advertising with an influencer who just a month before had deleted comments from the official Mount Rainier National Park Instagram account.

Despite that clause in the MOU, pictures like these are so common in outdoor gear advertising, even those that are LNTC sponsors/partners, that this kind of less than leave no trace behavior almost appears to be the norm, rather than the exception.  When these are the images that people new to the outdoors and public lands are seeing as they research and purchase gear, who can really blame them for thinking this kind of behavior is acceptable.  They might be hearing and reading that they should stay on the trail to protect vegetation and decrease erosion, but all they see in advertisements are people going off trail to get that epic, Instagram worthy image.

Leave No Trace Center supports influencers

Left, influencer advertising the use of beauty products in a hot spring.  Right, same influencer advertising for REI two days later.

LNTC message to ALEX one pic.png

Message from the official Leave No Trace Center Instagram account offering a message of support to an influencer that was called out for advertising illegally in Glacier National Park.  This same influencer earlier tried to defend her actions by posting the regulations from the NPS website - she convieniently deleted the two words in the regulation that pertained to her.

These same companies also have influencers (those social media accounts with followings in the thousands or even millions) advertise their products.  Many of these influencers represent companies that are also “aligned” with LNTC.  Some of them even have friends within the LNTC organization.  So, its no surprise that when these influencers start advertising on public lands in ways that are less than leave no trace, and sometimes are even illegal, that LNTC is not only silent on the topic, but suggests that calling out these massive influencer accounts for their behavior is “bullying” and “shaming” and should not be tolerated. (See my related article on call out culture)

Leave No Trace Center even recently offered supportive words to an influencer who was caught advertising illegally in Glacier National Park (see screenshot above).  If that doesn’t make it clear that LNTC is more focused on protecting themselves than educating people about responsible behavior on our public lands, lets take a look at some more subjective markers. 


The Authority of the Resource is a technique for engaging with people who may be behaving in a way that is “less than leave no trace”, for example a dog off leash where it isn’t allowed. The Authority of the Resource suggests that rather than telling this person that off leash dogs are illegal (Authority of the Agency), we should be telling people that off leash dogs aren’t allowed because there are newborn dear fawns in the area that may be negatively impacted.  When LNTC mentions this theory, and they regularly do, they almost always reference a four-page article written in 1990.  It hasn’t been updated since then so there are no suggestions about how to apply this theory to modern day technology like the internet and social media.  So, to recap one of the LNTC’s most referenced resources almost thirty years out of date and four pages long.  LNTC’s “Branding Guidelines”?  A whopping 23 pages.  On 11x17 paper.

While we are on the topic of “Brands”, did you know that the Leave No Trace principles are copyrighted by the LNTC?  Yep, posting the seven Leave No Trace Principles is a copyright violation.  Here is an excerpt from page 18 of the “Branding Guidelines”:

“The Leave No Trace Seven Principles with copyright language may be used by journalists or select groups (with written permission) to explain the basic elements of the program or for educational purposes. Otherwise, posting Leave No Trace copyrighted content suggests partnership. Thus corporations, businesses, websites and other entities must be official partners of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics to publicly post the Leave No Trace Seven Principles or other copyrighted program elements.”

Before my cease and desist letter arrives for copyright infringement, here is another direct quote from page 15 of the same “Branding Guidelines”:

“State parks, state lands, municipalities, private, and other lands must join as official Leave No Trace partners to enjoy the full benefits of the program.”

That’s right, if you’re a public lands management agency that isn’t the NPS, BLM, USFWS, USFS, or ACOE (Army Corps of Engineers) and you want to use Leave No Trace to promote respectful behavior, land management agencies need to pony up $150 for the lowest level partnership with stripped down benefits or up to $1,000 for full partnership


Here’s the kicker: Leave No Trace Center has a “Leave No Trace In Every Park” initiative, where the “goal is to have Leave No Trace education and messaging used in all parks and protected areas across the country”.  That’s right, in order to meet its own goals, LNTC requires that land management agencies that are already severely underfunded to pony up cash to participate.   Isn't that ironic.

Somehow, an idea that was invented by federal agencies and refined by a non-profit educational organization (NOLS) intended to encourage responsible behavior on public lands has been turned into a profit generating corporate machine that tightly controls the message and requires many public lands management agencies to literally buy into a copyrighted the idea that was never theirs to begin with.

Meanwhile Dana Watts, the executive director of the Leave No Trace Center was paid $156,104 in 2018, more than double the average salary of a National Park Service Park Ranger.  In addition, Dana Watts is provided further compensation not based on how many people LNTC educates or any other metric that could be perceived as having a positive impact on public lands, but instead on the net earnings of the organization:

Leave No Trace Center Director compensation

From Schedule J, Page 2, of LNTC's 2018 Form 990 Tax Return

Let’s switch gears and talk about another area where LNTC is completely dropping the ball, diversity and acknowledgement of the indigenous. 

Despite the fact that “the Center is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion as core values”, the only real mention of this is on their “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” page, which is linked on their “About” page as the fifth of eight links  As a sign of commitment to the topic, you can find it after links to “The People of Leave No Trace”, “Annual Reports & Financials”, “Contact”, and “FAQS”.  Once/if you find the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” page (which didn't exist until after August 2019, and was originally the seventh of seven links until LNTC got called out for it) , you’ll be treated to four succinct, vague, and generally underwhelming sentences on the topic.

Bouncing back to the 13-member Board of Directors, you’ll find about as much as much diversity there as there are sentences on the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” page.  The board appears to be composed mostly older white folks, with four females included, and what appears to be little other diversity of any kind based on the pictures and resumes posted on the LNTC website.

You might be thinking “Wow Steve, you’ve really turned into a snowflake (slang for Someone who is easily hurt or offended by the statements or actions of others) on this one”, but hear me out.  As the world gets smaller and the population grows, we are all going to have to get used to increased diversity of all kinds in our lives. I personally think that is a good thing, however it means that there are going to be more and more people of difference ages, races, ethnicities, and beliefs than ever before all sharing space on our public lands. In order to reach these people, the LNTC needs to start doing more than paying lip service to “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion”. 

Leave No Trace Center Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion page

The full extent of LNTC's "Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion" Page

LNTC wants to achieve it’s goals by applying “cutting-edge education and research” but that only goes so far (just ask the USFS how their wildfire management plan from the early to mid 1900’s worked.  Spoiler alert, it hasn’t gone well).  There is a wealth of knowledge about land management practices within indigenous communities that goes back thousands of years, and although it may not all be practical to apply it to the massively larger population that currently inhabits the world, that deep rooted knowledge can and SHOULD be applied in tandem with “cutting edge education and research”.  Unfortunately the only acknowledgement of this knowledge on the LNT website is one of the four sentences on the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” page that says:

“In the spirit of Leave No Trace, we acknowledge Indigenous People and Native Nations whose ancestral lands we enjoy today.”

I think it’s fair to say that the statement above is a woefully inadequate acknowledgement of the indigenous people who were excellent stewards of the land long before most of our predecessors migrated here and systematically pushed the indigenous people to the fringes of our society. 


Look, I have no doubt that the Leave No Trace Center was started with the best of intentions, and that to this day there are people at the LNTC that do great work educating people about how to be good stewards of our public lands.  However, the more I look at the organization and the more people I talk to who have interacted with employees from the LNTC, I can’t help but wondering if the heart of the organization has migrated from a place that truly cares about the land, to somewhere that it cares more about protecting its “brand”, its paychecks, and maintaining relationships with its corporate sponsors.

So, what are we to do when the organization that federal land management agencies entrusted to take on the task of educating people and promoting respect toward our public lands has lost its way and has become more interested in protecting itself than doing the job it was originally entrusted with?  We voice our opinions.  Respectfully, consistently and loudly.

​I’m not one to talk about a problem without offering up solutions, and that’s why I offer up the following suggestions to the LNTC that I feel will help them regain the trust of the public.

  • Mix up the board of directors

    • In order to remain relevant, people of different ethnicities, races, ages, beliefs, and backgrounds should be considered for the board, not just people deeply entrenched in the outdoor recreation and corporate worlds

  • Consider hiring a new executive director

    • Dana Watts has been the executive director of the LNTC almost since its inception and has undoubtedly been instrumental in making the program what it is today, for better or worse.  It might be time for a new director or for the addition of a deputy director.

  • Take the indigenous perspective seriously

    • LNTC should reach out to indigenous organizations, consider their perspectives, and incorporate it into their programming

    • Dedicate a position on the board for a person or persons of indigenous background

  • Reinstate public lands management agency representatives as non-voting board members

    • The organizations that originally founded the Leave No Trace idea and the ones who have to deal with the successes/failures of the LNTC should have a greater say in the process.

  • Reinstate the 8th Leave No Trace Principle – Share Responsibly

    • Restores the LNT principles to the 8 that were originally created

    • Principle is timeless, applies to all public lands, and is adaptable as new sharing and social media technologies develop.​

Leave No Trace Center corporate sponsors advertising

Screenshot of LNTC's Instagram page taken on 1/2/2020.  Note that only one of these twelve posts has any educational content and eight of the twelve feature products from their corporate sponsors.

  • Update older reference materials

    • Much of the material referenced by LNTC was created before social media existed. These materials need to be updated to take into account the effects of social media and how to deal with LNT issues in a virtual space.  The vague “social media guidelines” that have been issued are not sufficient.

  • More focus on education, less on attracting & appeasing corporate sponsors

    • 8 of the 12 most recent posts on IG by LNTC are promoting their sponsors.

    • Only 1 of the 12 most recent posts on IG by LNTC contains educational content

    • Responsible corporations should want to donate to LNTC because they believe in the message, not because its a tax deductible advertising channel for them.

  • Issue call-out guidance

    • LNTC should develop guidelines about how people should approach others that are sharing less than leave no trace content on social media, and how to respond to those that don’t think the rules apply to them.  They said that they would months ago, and have not yet responded.

    • Saying that calling out harmful behavior is not acceptable is NOT a solution.


I don’t care who reposts this.  I don’t care if Leave No Trace Center takes these ideas and runs with them. I don’t care that I’m not going to make a dime from this article or that it's not going to attract any flashy corporate sponsors.  My ONLY goal is to raise awareness about people needing to respect our public lands, and if this accomplishes that, even in a small way, public land owners like you and I will benefit.


If you think that The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is failing us and our public lands, let them know. 

Contact Leave No Trace Center

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