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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?


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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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.)

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

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.

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!

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

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!

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

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

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

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.

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