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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?


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.

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