How to be a Good Steward of the Land

How to be a Good Steward of the Land

Justin G6/15/21

by Justin Gray

Public Land Steward: Someone who is responsible for, protects, or looks after the land regardless of ownership. 

Why You Should Care about Stewardship

This affects YOU. As a person who enjoys the outdoors, I am willing to bet that you don't enjoy seeing trash piles being left behind, "tagging" (graffiti) on rocks and other monuments, nor do you prefer the putrid smell of human waste left uncovered.
So what can you possibly do about it? Read on!

Public Land is Your Land

Often we forget that public land is owned by the public. Every U.S. citizen is a member of the public, in other words; I am a public land owner, and so are you. We all remember that old folk song:

"This land is your land, and this land is my land
From the California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
This land was made for you and me."
Woodie Guthrie, 1940, "This Land Is Your Land"

The intro line rings true even today: "This land is your land, and this land is my land" says all that you need to know. 

Keeping Access Open

Ok now you're probably thinking that I want you to do something astronomical to make a difference... quite the contrary! All I want is for you to leave the land better than you found it. Pick up one piece of trash each time that you go out and you've already made a difference.

People who destroy, deface, or otherwise damage public lands ruin it for others to enjoy. Eventually these places lose their health and beauty leading to their access being closed to the public. By doing your part, however small or large it is, you help to ensure these open spaces enjoy open access.

Signage: Always respect signs: private land, warning, trail markers, archaeological & sensitive areas, etc. 

Respecting the Rights of Others: On trails, yield right-of-way to those passing you or heading uphill. If camping or relaxing near another group, be aware of your volume. When boating, watch for anglers, swimmers, and other boats. Most of the rules that fall under "Respecting the Rights of Others" is common sense; if you don't have common sense, you may want to work on that!

Remember, as a public land owner, it is your responsibility to respect the land and other's right to use it. If someone else is enjoying their land legally, respect their right to use the land even if it does not align with your personal values.

Education: Ignorance of the local rules and regulations is not a valid excuse; do some research before exploring unknown areas to educate yourself prior to leaving on your adventure.

Stay on the Trail

Whether you are hiking, riding a motorcycle, driving a car or riding a horse, always remember to stay on the trail. This is important so that we do not: trample plant and animal life, create erosion which can alter how water flows naturally in the area, damage or alter the ecosystem, make the area less appealing to others.

Tread Lightly

You've probably seen the bumper stickers and read the words "Tread Lightly" before, but what exactly does the phrase mean? Should I be tip-toeing through the woods? The phrase, "Tread Lightly" refers to the act of minimizing the impact that we have on the world around us. Some basic examples are:

Hikers: Stay on the trail, pack out your trash, follow trail signs, respect private property, do not trail-blaze new paths, and step over obstacles (do not go around them creating new trails).


Off-Road, 4x4, Off-Highway Vehicles: Travel only on appropriate roads/trails, avoid hard-throttling when unnecessary to minimize impact on the soil which accelerates erosion and creates ruts, leave gates as you find them, pack out your trash, and clean-up any fluid loss which may occur (coolant, oil, etc.).


Camping: Try to set-up camp in designated areas to avoid trampling vegetation, learn fire safety and how to properly extinguish a fire, learn the proper way to collect firewood (not from live trees), pack out what you pack in, utilize natural detergents, soaps, and toothpastes that do not cause harm to the environment or aquatic wildlife.


How to Handle Trash

Pack it in, pack it out. It's such a simple concept that states "if you bring it in with you, bring it back out with you". While keeping that in mind, remove excess packaging and repack goods; for instance, bacon comes in plastic wrap covered in cardboard packaging - remove the cardboard and leave it at home!

Where I travel, there are bears and other 4 legged creatures that love to get into everything. Trash must be made inaccessible to them and kept away from camp! Learn more: Leave No Trace

Smokers: If you smoke, please do not litter your butts! They're unsightly, can kill fish and animals, and do not degrade for hundreds of years. 
Use an enclosed ashtray to ensure a fire doesn't start when you're done; I prefer the Stinky brand portable metal ashtray.

Human waste

This section is dependent on where your camp is and/if there are any rules or regulations pertaining to the disposal of human waste. If you are staying in a developed campground, this section doesn't apply to you. For those that plan on staying elsewhere (like a dispersed campground), read along!

Never relieve yourself in or near waterways, near camp, and be sure to bury #2 at least 6 inches under ground! If you're camping in an area where it can't be buried, PACK IT OUT - Do not leave it exposed! The US Forest Service (as well as the National Park service amongst others) recommend only burying feces, not toilet paper or feminine hygiene products; those should be placed in a plastic bag and disposed of in a trash can.
Urine is usually considered sterile and can usually be left on the ground away from trails, waterways, and camp. Learn more at: National Park Service


First, learn how to properly place, create, and destroy a campfire. Obtain the proper permits and be certain that your location for a campfire is legal and safe. Do not place non-combustible items in a fire; cans, bottles, and plastics should NEVER BE PLACED IN A FIRE! More at: Smokey Bear

Respect Wildlife

View animals and plants from a distance. In most states it is illegal to approach or harass animals - this is for your safety and theirs. Quiet Observation is the key. Do not feed the animals or leave food for them; leave wildlife to remain wild. Be sure to control your pets too. Learn more at: Leave No Trace

Other Ways that you can Make a Difference

Finding clubs or organizations that put on clean-up events and promote good stewardship is a great way to get involved - Overland Bound is a group we work with that has nation-wide involvement. Each and every time that I venture into the outdoors, I make sure that I pick up any trash that I come across. I have instilled these values with my children, and we clean up camp before we set ours up! One of the groups that we love to work with is "Keep our Desert Clean". Learn more: Keep our Desert Clean

The Trail Back to Camp

This may seem like a lot of rules to follow, but when you stop and think about it - it really is just common sense. These are the same "rules" instilled by your parents on you while growing up: clean-up after yourself, don't litter, respect others; there really isn't anything new here. If you haven't noticed through this article, I am passionate about this topic and wholly believe in leaving our lands in better condition than we found them. This ensures that access to them remains open and that our children and future generations will have pristine lands to enjoy.

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If you'd like to learn more or investigate the topics in-depth, check out the links below!

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