“It’s a madhouse” is the first thing that my wife and I thought as we arrived at Anza-Borrego on a Thursday morning in March. We wanted to see the wildflower superblooms and thought we’d beat the crowd by visiting midweek. Everybody else clearly had the same idea. Hundreds of cars were trying to shoehorn into the tiny lot of state park headquarters. We aborted and drove past the dozens of frustrated drivers that had just pulled themselves off the road haphazardly like pick-up-sticks.
Our escape was bumpy. Winter floods had rutted the roads, which is why sand verbena, desert lilies and dandelions and arroyo lupines stretched out as far as the eye could see in a multi-hued carpet rolling right up to the dark sandstone mountains that framed the valley floor.
We had to stop and gawk, so tried to walk lightly. Or as lightly as we could under the circumstances. We tip-toed through the natural bouquets––avoiding the densest arrangements–– and made every effort not to break the quilt-like plates of sunbaked mud that anchored the yellow-flecked creosote bushes above them.
Leaving no trace is difficult in practice. No matter how careful you are, a single pair of boots will leave an impression of some kind. Multiply that by tens of thousands of footfalls and the landscape will inevitably be the worse for wear. A churned aftermath of bent stems, flattened petals, uprooted plants.
Even snapping a photograph can leave a mark of sorts. Beautiful photos of the superblooms online have drawn big crowds. Some were disappointed when the virtual appeared more beguiling than the real. “I was hoping to see purple waves. Not dots of yellow,” said one young woman to the Los Angeles Times. “This isn’t what it looked like on social media,” said another.
The great outdoors never needed social media to draw big crowds. Thirty-three million postwar visitors took trips to the national forests in 1950. Rightfully concerned about the wear and tear on the 193 million acres that it stewarded, the US Forest Service developed an outdoor education program called “No Trace.”
The precepts of the conservation minded program included teaching visitors how to practice low-impact hiking and camping and to be sensitive to the needs of other species and the habitats that sustain them. Other federal and state agencies––who also saw the same rise in land use––added their own contributions to the program and developed educational materials.
In 1990, the Forest Service contracted with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to create low-impact pedagogy and training. From this work emerged Leave No Trace and its seven-step program:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Anza-Borrego State Park was an early adopter of these concepts, though reframed as Desert Ethics. The boldfaced 60s brochures are meant to impart a simple wisdom to campers, cyclists and daytrippers: Leave only footprints. Take only memories. It’s a strong message that asks park visitors to take responsibility for their own actions.