Research Summary

Visitors’ attitudes and behavioral intentions toward Leave No Trace on a national forest

Park visitors’ attitudes towards effectiveness and ease of Leave No Trace affect compliance

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Parks and outdoor recreation areas are valuable sites for the public to engage with nature, but depend on visitors practicing good stewardship. Due to minimal staffing, parks must rely on indirect management of visitor behavior, via messaging that influences visitors to practice pro-environmental behaviors. The most famous example of indirect management is the Leave No Trace (LNT) program, which was started in the 1960s and continues today. Historically, LNT messaging has focused on individual knowledge gain, such as informing visitors of the six LNT principles. However, research shows that visitors’ motivation to practice behaviors is influenced by several factors beyond knowledge. The Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) model considers behavioral intent to be determined by three components: a person’s attitudes, the social norms they experience, and their perception of their own autonomy. This study examined the impact of attitudes on park visitors’ likelihood of engaging in LNT behaviors.

The study was conducted in the Shawnee National Forest (SNF) in southern Illinois, a highly accessible area with frequent recreational use. From January 2015 to January 2016, researchers approached adult (18 years or older) visitors at SNF trailheads after the visitors had completed their recreational activities and asked them to fill out a survey. Of the visitors that were approached, 83% responded to the survey, for a total of 281 respondents. The respondents were primarily under the age of 50. Almost all respondents were from Illinois or surrounding states, and 55% were male.

The survey asked respondents about their perceptions of the effectiveness, difficulty, and appropriateness of the six LNT practices, and asked them to use a 7-point scale to rate their knowledge of LNT and intent to practice these behaviors in future:
Prepare for all types of weather, hazards, and emergencies.
Stay on designated or established trails.
Carry out all litter, including food scraps.
Do not remove natural objects from the area.
Do not feed, follow, or approach wildlife.
Take breaks away from the trail and other visitors.

Data from all trailhead sites were analyzed together. On average, respondents perceived five out of six LNT principles to be highly effective at maintaining park quality (the exception being number 6). Four of the six principles were ranked “not at all difficult” to comply with, while the other two were ranked only slightly more difficult. Generally, respondents indicated that they intended to comply with LNT principles in future: 81% were “extremely likely” to carry litter/food out of natural areas, and “very likely” to prepare for weather and stay on established trails. Approximately half of respondents avoided harmful interactions with nature: 57% of respondents were “not at all likely” to approach or feed wildlife, while 50% were “not at all likely” to remove natural items from the forest. However, respondent on average said they were only “moderately likely” to take breaks away from others, and 36% of respondents said it was “very appropriate” to go off-trail to explore.

Respondents’ perceived effectiveness of LNT principles was the strongest predictor of visitors’ intent to practice those principles. Respondents’ attitudes towards principles were the second strongest predictor of intent. The exception to this trend was the principle of not removing natural objects from the area, where the perceived difficulty of this task was the strongest predictor of intent. Although 47% of respondents considered their knowledge of LNT to be “above average” or higher, knowledge of LNT did not appear to effect respondents’ intent to act.

The researchers disclaimed the following limitations to their study. The survey used self-reported intent as a proxy for behavior and did not observe respondents’ actual behavior in future outdoor recreation activities. The study also did not directly test the validity of the TPB model and did not account for its other two components (respondents’ control beliefs and social norms). Statistical analysis showed that the variables studied did not explain all the variance in the data, so the researchers recommend similar research on the other components of the TPB model.

This study concluded that visitors are more likely to comply with LNT principles that they believe are effective in maintaining parks. Research shows that visitors’ knowledge of LNT is not a reliable predictor of their compliance with LNT practices, as visitors may be aware of the principles but hold negative attitudes towards them. Visitors are highly sensitive to litter in their recreational areas and are therefore motivated to clean up their own litter, but if visitors are confused about the effectiveness of LNT principles, they are less likely to comply. For example, two LNT principles are seemingly contradictory: one principle recommends always staying on-trail, while another encourages taking breaks off-trail to not disturb other visitors. Respondents in this study preferred the opposite approach, taking breaks on-trail but going off-trail to experience nature. Visitors’ perceived difficulty of LNT principles may also limit their compliance, but according to other studies, most national park visitors perceive LNT principles as not very difficult to comply with. The researchers concluded that land managers should focus on communicating LNT principles as appropriate, effective, and easy practices.

The Bottom Line

Historically, park messaging has focused on informing visitors of the six Leave No Trace (LNT) principles, but research shows that knowledge of LNT does not predict visitors’ compliance with LNT principles. This study examined the impact of park visitors’ attitudes towards LNT principles on the visitors’ intent to practice these principles. Over a year, researchers approached adult visitors at Shawnee National Forest trailheads and asked them to fill out a survey about their perceived effectiveness, difficulty, and appropriateness of the six LNT principles, their knowledge of LNT, and their intent to practice LNT principles in future. Respondents’ perceived effectiveness of LNT principles was the strongest predictor of visitors’ intent to practice those principles, followed by their attitudes. Knowledge of LNT alone did not predict visitors’ intent to practice. The researchers concluded that, rather than focusing on individual knowledge gain, land managers should focus on communicating LNT principles as appropriate, effective, and easy practices.