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When Trail And Park Etiquette Goes Bad

From dog-related issues to rude human behavior and worse, swelling numbers of users result in increasing complaints

When there were fewer of us in our mountain towns, trails used to be a guarantee for finding solace. But in communities with rapidly rising numbers of people, there are increasing conflicts among different users, off-leash pets chasing wildlife or leaving behind waste and even break-ins at trailheads. Where do we go from here?  Photo courtesy Pixabay free-use license
When there were fewer of us in our mountain towns, trails used to be a guarantee for finding solace. But in communities with rapidly rising numbers of people, there are increasing conflicts among different users, off-leash pets chasing wildlife or leaving behind waste and even break-ins at trailheads. Where do we go from here? Photo courtesy Pixabay free-use license
In the Gallatin Valley of southwest Montana, we’ve been feeling the wave of change for decades. It has been constant and while it has brought many wonderful people to our community, change is never easy. 

At the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, we hear often about how people are embracing and adapting to change. This spring was different. We experienced an uptick in the number of calls about dog waste, overflowing trash cans, break-ins at trailheads, disrespectful trail users and dogs running off-leash onto private property. 
This spring was different. We experienced an uptick in the number of calls about dog waste, overflowing trash cans, break-ins at trailheads, disrespectful trail users and dogs running off-leash onto private property. 
It felt like the scales finally tipped; we crossed a threshold and understandably, people were fed up. The math makes sense; more people equals more use on the trails. Busier trails bring challenges. 

The callers asked, “GVLT, what can you do? More signs? Trail police?” 

While we care deeply about our trails, as do our agency partners and the generous private landowners who allow public access, we don’t have the funds or time to police the trails, nor should we be expected to. Trails are shared public spaces, they are our spaces. 

GVLT and partners, [and certainly this applies to land trusts wherever they are found], will continue to do everything we can to help promote trail etiquette and stewardship but we need your help.  The solution lies with all of us.  

The culture around how we use and steward our public spaces needs to change. The status quo simply won’t do if we want to continue enjoying these remarkable trails that add so much to our quality of life.
The culture around how we use and steward our public spaces needs to change. The status quo simply won’t do if we want to continue enjoying these remarkable trails that add so much to our quality of life.
Perhaps it is time for all of us to consider small sacrifices and changes in our individual behavior to ensure that everyone’s trail experiences remain positive. If we all took small steps to mitigate our cumulative impact, we could remedy many of the problems we experience. 
Here are some ideas: Everyone misses a dog poop now and again. Why not scoop an extra poop; leave with two bags every time you leave a trail. And while it used to be ok to leave your bag on the side of the trail to grab it on your way back, the one bag has become twenty and no one enjoys looking at that. 

Bring a smell proof container and put your waste bag in your pack or tie it to your bag. Hike with extra dog poop bags in case someone needs one. If you’re running or biking and didn’t see it happen behind you, it did. Scoop a different poop before you leave the trail.

Back in the day, leashing your dog on town trails didn’t seem like a big deal. There just weren’t that many dogs. With the trails as busy as they are, dogs off-leash where they should be on-leash are creating a serious issue, particularly in areas where we’re granted public access on or near private property and where wildlife roams
Back in the day, leashing your dog on town trails didn’t seem like a big deal. There just weren’t that many dogs. With the trails as busy as they are, dogs off-leash where they should be on-leash are creating a serious issue, particularly in areas where we’re granted public access on or near private property and where wildlife roam. 
Don’t forget that people new to town, and visitors alike, are looking to you to learn the norms about trail behavior. If the ‘locals’ break the rules, it must not be that big of a deal, right? We can no longer consider ourselves exceptions to the rules; we have to set a good example. 

Trailhead break-ins have us all angry, understandably. We cannot let the actions of a few bad actors change our experiences outside. We can make small behavior modifications to protect ourselves and our belongings, even though they may be inconvenient. Hike with your valuables in a backpack. Better yet, leave them at home or lock them in your trunk. Stay extra vigilant at the trailhead. Smile, wave and greet every single person you see. Who knows, you may even make a new friend. 

Many of us have become accustomed to our certain trail habits. If you’ve hiked with your dog off-leash on the Gallagator Trail for 20 years, why change now?  You’re just one person, right? What’s one dog poop in the woods? What difference could it possibly make? A big one. 

Our individual actions accumulate and impact our trails in significant ways. We cannot take our shared spaces for granted. We must show our children that we respect the places that hold us and inspire us. It is our responsibility, each one of us, to ensure that these same experiences are there for them to enjoy as they grow up.  

EDITOR'S NOTE: Mountain Journal suggests that readers support the Gallatin Valley Land Trust (or your local land trust wherever you live) and learn more about Bozeman's Main Street to the Mountains trail system.
Penelope Pierce
About Penelope Pierce

Penelope Pierce is executive director of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust and has been a national leader in the discussion about the value of protecting open space for humans and wildlife
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