Leave No Trace Related Research

The Leave No Trace Center funds, designs, and undertakes research designed to inform new and effective ways to educate people about protecting our shared public lands. The Center develops groundbreaking research projects, and utilizes cutting-edge methods, blending different data collection techniques to gather important information. This research fuels the creation of specific education, messaging and innovative programming that contributes to the long-term care of parks and protected areas. 

For most park and protected area managers, balancing resource protection with the provision of recreational opportunities is an ongoing challenge. Given the recent substantial increase in national park visitation in the United States, impacts on visitor experience and ecological conditions have correspondingly increased. A specific concern for many park and protected area managers is waste management and/or generation of waste by visitors, park operations, and concessionaires, and the impact it has on both protected areas and adjacent communities. Each year, over 100 million pounds of waste is generated in national parks through a variety of means including park operations, by visitors to parks, and other sources (Pierno, 2017). This is not entirely representative of all waste generating activities in parks and does not completely account for waste generated in gateway communities or by park concessions. Though the NPS promotes visitation and enjoyment of parks, the agency must provide sustainable parks now and for future generations. The primary goal of this study was to explore specific visitor attitudes and behaviors towards waste disposal and recycling in select national parks. This was done through direct visitor observations paired with visitor surveys at Grand Teton National Park (GRTE), Yosemite National Park (YOSE), and Denali National Park and Preserve (DENA) to better understand how park managers can achieve waste management goals through effective educational and management strategies. 

Lawhon, B., Taff, B. D., Schwartz, F. G., & Miller, Z.D., Newman, P. (2018). Exploring Visitor Attitudes, Values, and Behaviors Regarding Waste in National Parks. Report Prepared for Subaru of American and the National Park Service. Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. 

Leaving pet waste on public open space is a depreciative behavior, with the potential to harm social and ecological wellbeing. Managers often implement direct and indirect management actions to mitigate depreciative behaviors like this. The purpose of this study was to explore dog owner behaviors and self-reported perceptions regarding the disposal of dog waste in Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) in Boulder, Colorado, in an effort to increase compliance with proper disposal practices. This study utilized direct observations of dog owners and their behaviors regarding pet waste, and separate self-reported surveys to examine dog owner’s perceptions of pet waste disposal in OSMP. The Theory of Planned Behavior served as a framework to explore how dog owners’ attitudes, norms, and perceived behavioral control might influence behavioral intentions, as well as self-reported current behavior, regarding the disposal of pet waste in OSMP. Finally, this study explored potential management techniques that may influence dog owners’ to properly dispose of pet waste in OSMP in the future. 

Blenderman, A., Taff, B. D., Schwartz, F., & Lawhon, B. (2017). Dog Owner’s Perceptions and Behaviors Related to the Disposal of Pet Waste in City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks. Final Report prepared for City of Boulder, Colorado, Open Space and Mountain Parks by Pennsylvania State University and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.

The authors explored the influences of a youth-focused Leave No Trace educational program on participants’ attitudes, behaviors, and nature connectedness. The study employed an experimental, equivalent control-group design and included survey and direct observation measures. Pretest and posttest surveys provided self-report measures of attitudes and nature connectedness, while direct observations examined participants’ behavior toward keeping or leaving objects found in nature. Participants who received the PEAK educational program reported positive attitude changes above and beyond participants who did not receive the program and left found objects more often than those in the control group.

Schwartz, F., Taff, B. D., Lawhon, B., Hodge, C., Newman, P., & Will, E. (2018). Will they leave what they find? The efficacy of a Leave No Trace education program for youth. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 1-11.

Impact to protected area resources due to uninformed or depreciative visitor behavior continues to be a principal concern for managers. Leave No Trace is a prevalent educational strategy for mitigating such impacts. Through on-site surveys, this study examined frontcountry visitor attitudes toward Leave No Trace practices, and self-reported knowledge concerning Leave No Trace in three Wyoming state parks to determine factors that influenced their behavioral intent to practice Leave No Trace. Results suggest that attitudes toward perceived effectiveness of Leave No Trace practices and appropriateness of Leave No Trace practices are significant predictors of behavioral intent. If education-based communication efforts focus on why Leave No Trace practices are appropriate and effective, there is an increased likelihood of meaningfully influencing behavioral intent.

Lawhon, B., Taff, B. D., Newman, P., Vagias, W. M., & Newton, J. (2017). Understanding and Influencing State Park Visitors' Leave No Trace Behavioral Intent. Journal of Interpretation Research22(1).


The use and creation of undesignated recreational trails can lead to erosion, vegetation damage, unsafe trail conditions, and impacts to local wildlife. The mitigation of undesignated trail use is typically addressed indirectly through minimum impact visitor education programs such as Leave No Trace, or directly through closures or sanctions. In this study, researchers collaborated with City of Boulder, Colorado Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) staff to develop a quasi-experimental field study that examined the effectiveness of indirect (messaging) and direct (barriers) management approaches to mitigating undesignated trail use. The study applied a theory of planned behavior framework, utilized Leave No Trace messaging, and employed a method to pair survey and direct observation data. A total of 2,232 visitor parties were observed, and 147 surveys were collected. The combined direct (barrier) and indirect (messaging) intervention was the most effective at mitigating undesignated trail use. Implications for management and future research are discussed.

Lawhon, B., Taff, B. D., & Schwartz, F. (2016). Undesignated Trail Management and Messaging Study Report. The City of Boulder, Department of Open Space and Mountain Parks. Boulder, Colorado. 

Bouldering is a growing recreational activity, frequently occurring in fragile wilderness areas. As bouldering use increases, so too does the potential for ecological and social impacts. Leave No Trace–based educational strategies are the most prominent form of indirect management used to infuence wilderness visitor behaviors. Given the growth of bouldering in wilderness and the lack of understanding regarding boulderers’ perceptions of minimum impact practices, the purpose of this study was to examine boulderers’ attitudes and perceptions of Leave No Trace in Rocky Mountain National Park. Results suggest that boulderers’ attitudes generally align with Leave No Trace recommended practices, although attitudes are less congruent with practices that are perceived as limiting to safety, access, and maintaining bouldering opportunities in the park. Findings indicate that global perceptions of Leave No Trace are positive and that educational communication strategies that target specific bouldering behaviors could minimize ecological and social impacts associated with bouldering. Results provide wilderness managers with baseline attitudinal data, which can be reevaluated in the future and monitored in conjunction with ecological data, after educational communication and outreach strategies have been deployed. 

Schwartz, F., Taff, B. D., Pettebone, D., & Lawhon, B. (2016). Boulderers’ Attitudes and Beliefs Regarding Leave No Trace in Rocky Mountain National Park. International Journal of Wilderness22(3), 25-32.

Resource degradation resulting from visitor behavior continues to be a significant concern for land managers, and effective educational messages such as those promoted through Leave No Trace, which target depreciative behaviors, are imperative. This study examined psychological and knowledge variables that were hypothesized to influence future Leave No Trace behavioral intent of visitors in Rocky Mountain National Park. Data were obtained from an on-site survey administered to individuals (n = 390, response rate 74%) in the Bear Lake corridor of the park. Results of a multiple regression analysis revealed that perceived effectiveness of Leave No Trace practices is a significant predictor of future behavioral intent (b > .21, p < .001, in all cases). Frontcountry visitors like those at Bear Lake are more likely to practice Leave No Trace if they perceive the practices to be effective at reducing impacts. 

Lawhon, B., Newman, P., Taff, D., Vaske, J., Vagias, W., Lawson, S., & Monz, C. (2013). Factors Influencing Behavioral Intentions for Leave No Trace Behavior in National Parks. Journal of Interpretation Research17(3).