Leave it Better than You Found it

Leave it Better than You Found it

Originally published at: https://naturephotographers.network/articles/leave-it-better-than-you-found-it/

As a child growing up in Idaho, my family and I made several trips to nearby Yellowstone National Park. I remember finding ancient petrified wood and thinking how it would be a great addition to my growing rock collection. Upon seeing me place rocks in my pocket to take home, my parents got down to my level and taught me a valuable lesson; that if everyone took some of this out of the park, eventually there wouldn’t be any left for anyone to enjoy. I reluctantly put the fossilized wood back but took home something more valuable – the lesson of leaving it better than I found it.

Flash forward some 8 years, and I was a young scout in Oregon on an adventure hike in the Mt. Hood wilderness. As you can imagine a group of 14-year-olds on a long hike, we were mostly complaining that our legs hurt and we were ready to set up camp and play in the woods. On our hike, we came across a camp that had been used the night before littered with all sorts of trash. Despite our complaints of fatigue and hunger, our scoutmaster made a point to give us a teaching moment. I remember his words well; “boys, I know you’re tired and want to get to our camp, but first we need to leave this spot better than we found it.” After some initial grumblings, we all took off our backpacks and began to clean up the camp. Our complaints eventually turned into accomplishment as we placed the trash in our already heavy bags and left the campsite better for the next occupants.

In recent years and with the advent of social media, our public lands and National Parks have become more popular than ever. More and more people are discovering our amazing wild places and are encouraged to adventure and experience these grand environments for themselves, which I am all for – I believe, much like Ed Abbey and other noted environmentalists have stated that nature is a necessity and is good for the soul. However, some of these folks going into Public Lands, either due to lack of education, apathy or some other reason have decided that these places are one big trash can, or worse in some cases, to promote their Instagram handle or other forms of personal expression in the form of graffiti.

Too many reports and examples to list show vast amounts of garbage left in campsites and the trails. Many times I have personally discovered vast quantities of graffiti rather it be etchings, marker, chalk, etc. within the walls of slot canyons or other red rock formations. Most notable examples are of the infamous Creepytings who vandalized several National Parks with her street art and acrylic marker. Another is the scout leaders who (not practicing scout principles) toppled over a goblin formation in Goblin Valley State Park, UT. A video shows a group of people knocking over the famous duck formation on the Oregon Coast. Most recently a man was caught carving a loving memento into the side of Corona Arch, BLM Utah. Lest we forget the multiple examples of people harassing wildlife in Yellowstone. The list, sadly, could go on and on.

There have been many groups and movements centered around wilderness stewardship. If you grew up in the 80s like me, you might remember Woodsy Owl, who (no pun intended) was a mascot for not littering. While the Woodsy mascot costume of itself was terrifying and the stuff of nightmares (go ahead and do a quick google search), he was a great tool that was geared to teach children the importance of not polluting with his catchy tag line of Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute. These days you don’t see much, if any, of our old friend Woodsy.

While not littering and cleaning up after yourself seems like common knowledge, National Parks and other Public Lands have found increased litter and trash in the parks, trails, and campgrounds to the point they don’t have the resources to combat the growing problem. Significant effort has been put in by the Leave No Trace organization and reminders of “pack it in, pack it out”usually are at trailheads and campground posts. Still, the problem persists. Because of this, I have been encouraging people to Leave It Better Than You Found It.

Those lessons of my youth have stayed with me all these years and unfortunately while leave no trace has done great work; it isn’t enough as these problems continue. It is up to those who are responsible to do some of the heavy lifting and clean up after others and in some cases help with restoration efforts to trails, campsites and other damaged areas.

When it comes to landscape photography and photographers, I feel there is a deeper responsibility on our end to use any social media following or influence we have to promote wilderness ethics and to leave places better than we found them. This takes on a higher meaning as we ourselves respect the rules of the parks and public lands. Too often a bad example of a photographer can lead to others copying or replicating the bad behavior (camping in undesignated areas, using drones where not allowed, going over marked off areas to “get the shot” etc.). Leaving it better as a photographer goes beyond picking up someone else’s garbage, but thinking about how your post can affect an area and how it can influence other’s behavior.

Leaving it better calls for a proactive approach to ensure that these places are preserved for generations to come. Let’s be honest, it’s not fun cleaning up after other people. It is not enjoyable to have dirty, smelly garbage in your bag or car from some other person. It isn’t ideal to take time from your camping trip to clean up trails and other places. Having to tell people not to carve their Instagram handle into sandstone walls is not an enjoyable experience, but if we want to have continued access to our wild places, I believe these actions are more than necessary. I’ve started to put gloves and garbage sacks in my own bag everywhere I go to make sure I’m prepared to leave it better and have even found my kids take every opportunity now to clean up garbage they find (now if I could just get them to clean their rooms…)

While I could go on about the subject, I hope that the simple phrase of Leave It Better Than You Found It is self-explanatory. I do believe that by small means, we can bring about profound change to help turn the tide of this sickness. My challenge to you, wherever you are, and especially in Public Lands, National Parks and wild places is to leave it better than you found it.


Great article, and timely!

We keep a pair of these in our truck along with a box of black garbage bags. First thing before enjoying a site, whether fishing picnicking or photographing we spend a few minutes taking up a collection. Our worst or best day was the time things were so bad we filled our truck in an hour and never got around to fishing. It filled so fast because other folks including a game warden saw what we were doing and stopped to help. Best social event of the year for all of us.


Hear hear! I was in the Scouts for 13 years and had a similar experience. After having these ethics drilled into me, it’s baffling and heartbreaking to see people not taking care of natural places. Heck, even non-natural places (if there is such a thing) have more litter than I like.

I’m glad to see this sentiment is getting more popular among photographers, and thanks for being a part of that. I’ve seen more IG stores of photographers cleaning garbage, and blurbs in workshop announcements of people getting small discounts if they fill up a bag of garbage, for example.

I encourage everybody to listen to @Matt_Payne’s podcast episode with Phill where he does talk about this more. Since he didn’t link it, I’m going to! @Phill_Monson is also just an entertaining guy to listen to.


Last November, I listened to that podcast episode while driving in Utah. I went on a backpacking trip for a few days, and I remember in the first restaurant I visited after the hike, I saw one of your stickers and my mind was blown! I thought it was a mirage at first :laughing: . The word is spreading!


Excellent article, Phil. A friend and I acted as trail hosts on a popular hike in our area for a number of years and we’d hold a competition for who could find the most and wierdest garbage.

Brent is right about the non-natural areas as well. Our urban trails are often a disgrace and while some of the litter may come from stroller age kids, I’ve found a huge number of energy gel packages along them. One brand used to have “Do Not Litter” on the pull off end and I amassed quite a collection of those tabs before I moved to the country.

One thing I’d add. If you see someone cleaning up and have time, stop to help. If you don’t have time, at least stop and thank them.


Oh man you beat me to it :slight_smile: I was going to post a link to the iTunes version of that episode. Keep up the great work @Phill_Monson



Very good article, Phil. Sadly, it is not just are parks that is getting trashed these days. Here in NC it turns my stomach to just ride down the road, and litter everywhere! Our yard (we live on a main road), is always getting trash thrown into it, so I am always picking up behind people that don’t appreciate the earth we have been given to enjoy. Very sad.


Thats awesome, Hank! It’s amazing how fulfilling and rewarding it feels to pick up garbage for a bit and give back to these places. Well done, sir!

I appreciate that, Brent! I’m glad to see that this notion is getting more traction as well - the more the better!

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Excellent ideas, Dennis! I agree, non-natural areas are just as bad if not worse than public lands. It is becoming a huge problem everywhere. Great idea on stopping to help others and thanking them as well! Kindness begets kindness.

Thanks Matt! Is was a blast being on the podcast.

Thanks Shirley - and agreed, the amount of litter on the roads and non-public lands areas is a huge problem. I wish we could get states and other agencies to promote more wilderness ethics again like back in the 80s.

I always pick up trash when I visit natural areas. It is such a pervasive problem that sometimes you can actually catch the person doing it too. My wife was waiting in traffic at a railroad crossing when she noticed a women toss out her bag of McDonald’s wrappers from her car window. My wife got out of her car, walked up to the pile of trash, picked it up, and knocked on the offender’s car window. When the offender opened her window, my wife gave her one sentence and the Liam Neeson death stare: “You dropped something”. The woman took the trash, rolled up her window and locked her car door…Jim


Very good and disturbing article, not that it is anything I was not aware of. You were obviously taught well by your parents and scout leaders. I commend both you for listening and teaching and to them for teaching.

It is truly said looking at what mankind is doing to our environment, not happy unless they are screwing it up and ruining it for others. :frowning:

Rich Hahn

I applaud your essay, Phill. You’ve approached the subject from an experiential place. We should all be grateful for you and others who give of themselves for the good of nature.

I had my first experience packing out a stranger’s human waste when I discovered it mere feet from a lake in a wilderness area in 2018. Extremely gross for me, extremely unfortunate for the wilderness that someone was unprepared and inconsiderate - not to mention unsanitary. Wow.

Let’s all Leave It Better than You Found It.

Phill, what a truly appropriate article in our time. I have always practiced this when in the wilderness and I get irritated with others who continually walk by, or walk over trash on the trail. I always have room in my pack, camera bag to remove anything along the trail(s). The news during the government shutdown of our National Parks and the vandalism was devestating to say the least. I love the motto “Leave it Better than you Found It.” Thank you sir.

This is all great advice, Phill. Thank you for your leadership and advocacy among the photography community on this topic. This is an important message that we all need to heed, most importantly, to help preserve natural places but to also help maintain access so we can all continue photographing the places we love.

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Great article. Sad but true. We moved to Texas. I have never seen so much trash along the roads as there is in East Texas. We pickup bags of it every week.

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