Reader Participation Day: What Do You Do When You See A Visitor Doing Something Inappropriate In A National Park?

Dog on the Abrams Creek Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Most parks don't allow dogs on trails, something these hikers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park apparently didn't realize. Photo by Danny Bernstein.

What do you do when you see a visitor doing something inappropriate or illegal in a national park?

This is not a theoretical question, as I struggle with this a lot. I feel that it's different from breaking the rules on the street. National parks, from the largest, most iconic to the smallest historic site, are special places where the rules are there to protect the resources.

Do you ignore the problem, thinking that maybe rangers will deal with it?

Do you mention it to the visitor?

Do you try to find a ranger?

Does it depend on the problem? Everyone knows not to litter or to carve their initials on an historic cabin. But many visitors claim not to know that dogs are not allowed on trails in many national parks or that they shouldn't pick flowers.

Does your reaction depend on the park you're in? I'm particularly vocal in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway where I think I know the rules well. I'm quieter when I'm away from my home turf.

Does it depend on other circumstances?

How do you handle the problem?


My wife has a real habit of telling children that litter "Excuse me you dropped that" She will escalate until the child picks it up... it is effective to "embarass" the youth of today into doing what you want.

Wether I'm in uniform or not, when I see someone breaking the rules in any National Park I try to gently let them know, and explain why. These are all of Our special places so why not help.

I almost always speak with the problems. I've discovered that if I politely approach and simply explain the situation, there is almost always an apology and hopefully a lesson learned.

There have only been a couple of times I've had to pull out my cell phone and make a call. (Even out of cell phone range, it's amazing what "talking" with a ranger on the other end will do. It's called a good bluff and it has worked both times I've had to do it.)

And when it hasn't worked . . . . at least I knew I had tried.

I have mentioned something a couple times, trying to avoid a confrontational attitude if the action involves damge to natural resources (kids whacking delicate plants with sticks) or unresonable damge to my enjoyment (unleashed dogs flushing out birds I was enjoying). I have to admit I'm unlikely to say something if the person is doing something that endangers themself. I've found the people typically doing this are not open to advice or reprimand and best left to learn for themselves or be scolded by someone in uniform. The guy at Theodore Roosevelt that gave me an unsolicited lecture on bison behavior and then proceeded to drive right into a herd that was on the road, exit his camper, and start clicking pictures in their faces is a good example. The woman at Yellowstone that stuck her hand in the hot water at Norris is another. Undeterred by the heat and stench, she decided to taste it and then gave a loud German tirade about how horrible the water was. My experience tells me that attempting to educate those people will do nothing but frustrate me and ruin my day. I'm glad the rangers are more patient individuals than I am!

Double-post. Stupid CAPTCHA said I was a robot then decided I wasn't.

I saw some adults and their probably 4-year-old child clmbing up and down a rushing waterfall, despite multiple warning signs along the trail. I would have just shaken my head if it were only adults, but since they were allowing/encouraging their child, I said several times things like, "You really shouldn't be doing that" and "That's really dangerous. I hope she doesn't get hurt." Forget the fact others wanted to photograph the waterfall. They ignored me, as I pretty much expected would happen.

But there's not much I would confront someone about out in the woods when there aren't many people around.

When we pass someone doing something not correct, we rather loudly confer with each other, "Oh, I didn't think we are suppose to bring dogs, pick flowers, etc". Once, someone passing tried handing me a wildflower boquet, I said, gee, thanks, now they won't make seeds and will not grow next year, and shrugged off the flowers. I guess you might say, I tend to be bluntly rude. If it is noteworthy, I do mention the situation at the visitor center. Picking the wildflowers is a real sore topic for me, that is my main reason foe visiting such places.

I yelled at some tourons to stop approaching a young male bear in Great Smoky Mountains this spring. They gave me a dirty look, but the noise ran the bear off and probably saved its life, if not theirs.

Like Gaelyn, it doesn't matter what park I'm in, I'm still a ranger. When I see someone breaking the rules I always identify myself and explain the rules as politely as I can. Sometimes when I'm not in uniform I can get a little snippy when people are doing really stupid/dangerous/mean things. Like teenage boys throwing large rocks at an alligator or at Mesa Verde when some boys hopped over a fence and went running to the cliff edge. I wasn't terribly polite at those times, but (hopefully!) wasn't too mean. It is the job of rangers to protect the park from the people, the people from the park, and the people from the people, and I don't think it matters what park we're in.

As I spend most of my time in the backcountry, I've rarely run into this type of situation. However, I can recall two occasions - both in Yellowstone - where I spoke sternly, but as politely as I could to point out the offense to the rule breaker. And in both instances they complied with my request. I expect people to follow the rules, as I do, regardless of location or severity of the infraction.

What were the infractions, Dennis?

If I encounter a person with a dog I expalin to them it is against National Park rules then I go on explain why the rule is there. Dogs are non natural animals, to other natural animals they smell like wolves and the natural animals will stay away from the trails. If they ask where they can take their dogs in to forests I tell them BLM and the forest service allow dogs.

Making the decision as to whether or not to intercede when one observes violations in National Parks is a personal decision that should be made after fully assessing your situation. Ask yourself some of these questions;

· Is correcting the person worth placing yourself in possible danger?

· Do you have communications to call for help?

· Do you have an escape route so you can get out of the area in case the situation goes sour?

· How many people are with the person committing the offense?

· What is the demeanor of the offender and any companions – are they acting aggressive?

· Do the offenders appear to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs?

More than thirty two years as a National Park Ranger taught me that people are one of the most unpredictable of creatures in our parks. You may be confident in yourself and abilities, but you know nothing about the person you are about to confront. In the course of my career I found that people are increasingly becoming more volatile when their actions are questioned.

As soon as the person you have chosen to say something to presents any signs of defiance or aggressiveness, I would highly recommend leaving the area immediately.

Another alternative to taking action would be to make detailed observations of the offenders such as:

§ Complete and accurate description of what you observed

§ Physical descriptions of offenders

§ Clothing and outdoor gear that they have

§ Number and descriptions of companions

§ Specific location of where the offense occurred

§ Time of the offense

§ Descriptions including tag numbers of vehicle if involved

§ Direction of travel of the offenders if they left the area

As soon as possible report this information to a Park Ranger or other authorized person.

Park Rangers are few and far between and they always appreciate the assistance of additional eyes to protect our resources and your fellow visitors. Most Park Rangers would also agree that they never want a park visitor to endanger themselves in this process.

I'm more inclined to speak up if someone is annoying animals, littering, harming plants, etc. Less so if they are simply risking their own life and limb. Once saw a pilgrim edge closer and closer to a cow & calf moose trying to get a photo while wife & kid hollered for him to come back. Moose was getting really fed up! I sat on a stump to enjoy the show and maybe get some long-lens action photos. Only the arrival of a ranger prevented the gene pool from being improved!

The problem is many people in this country don't have any manners. They consider their dogs "people" and family and don't understand why you don't love Fido as they do.For God's sake most of them sleep with the dog!!!LOL

Hey, I sleep with my dog! She's better behaved than my grandkids. Than most kids, for that matter.
However, I don't need "mountain lion bait" when I'm on the trails. She stays home!

I was at the Fountain Paint Pots in Yellowstone a few years ago when this young Asian couple decided that she needed to step off of the boardwalk so that he could take her photo. I got after them (with lots of gestures -- they obviously did not speak English) until she got back up on the boardwalk, without him having taken her picture.

I know they went home to wherever home was telling stories about that crazy American lady who wouldn't let them take a simple picture, but that's a heck of a lot better than watching her fall through the crust and burn herself to death.

I am just enough whatever-it-is to feel that since they didn't speak English, they had an obligation to search out a copy of the rules and regulations in their own language, and then obey them. The park service puts them out in several dozen languages in Yellowstone, and there's no excuse not to do that.

As long as they are not my kids....I try to encourage that type of behavior

I was at the Green River Overlook in Canyonlands a few weeks ago, when a German-speaking tourist dropped his cigarette butt and kicked some dirt over it. While I was pondering what to say to him "auf Deutsch," the problem solved itself when he turned around and asked if I'd take a picture of him and his family (all adults). I said in English, in a voice that others could hear: "Only if you pick up your cigarette."

I took the picture, and he complied with my request.

On the way back to our car, my friend heard a woman say to her husband: "I wonder what he did with his cigarette butt?"

(To see the view, click here.)

thought but I still believe that people don't take care of these things
especially if it is not their property

Personally I usually ignore if I see something like this in a public

But I would like to improve the habit
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