In the wild interview with Dana Watts of Leave No Trace

The leader of one of the most recognized conservation organizations talks social media, Pokémon Go, and leaving behind only footprints.
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Dana Watts with her husband and daughter

Dana Watts, middle, with her husband and 18-year-old daughter.

After tossing some trash into a bear-proof trash can, Dana Watts pauses to brush her palm on a sign posted along the trail to Mt. Sanitas in Boulder, Colorado. "It's good luck" she says, adding that it's just something silly she's always done. So I do it too, before her and I, along with her dog Coozie, continue our morning walk and talk.

Like many people in Boulder, Watts frequents the Mt. Sanitas and Dakota Ridge trails. She lives only a few blocks away and her office at Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is right down the street in a little building that has always reminded me of summer camp—maybe because I was first introduced to LNT principles at camp. It has a pitched roof with big windows, blue Adirondack chairs and a picnic table on the patio, and it's surrounded by mature trees.

This year, the nonprofit turned 25. Watts has been there since the beginning, serving for most of her tenure as the executive director of what is now considered one of the most recognized national conservation organizations. We hiked with her one morning in August to talk about the organization's newest principle about social media, her favorite Colorado activities, and the global reach of the nonprofit.

What's your first outdoor memory?

I grew up in Colorado and in the outdoors. We used to do this trip to Grand Lake every summer. I think it was my mom's way of trying to revisit her past because she grew up on a lake. We didn't go into Rocky Mountain National Park as much, but we drove through more U.S. Forest Service land like Winter Park, Fraser, and Granby. We didn't have a pristine park experience, but we were just taught that those are public lands. My parents would throw five of us kids in the car and drive up there. There weren't as many people and it was kind of easier to find a spot, pull over, and set up. We did a ton of that. I remember trying to set up an old Army-issue canvas tent that didn't deflect rain very well. And I also remember waking up and having stunning mornings.

What brought you to Leave No Trace?

I was working in Washington D.C. on the Hill for a little bit in public affairs. Then I worked for an advertising company that did education and outreach. I met my husband in D.C. and after about three years, we were ready for change. He suggested Boulder, truly kind of on a whim. When we moved here 27 years ago, I had a good friend who was director of Outdoor Industry Association, called ORCA [Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America] at the time. He told me they were forming a new nonprofit and he felt like it would be a really good fit for me. Things just fell into place and I was the second hire at Leave No Trace. The first director lasted for about a year, and once again, it was just good timing. I was the interim director for about 6 months and then shortly after became the executive director.

Staying at a job for 20-plus years isn't the norm anymore. What's kept you there for so long?

I'm obviously very tied to the actual mission, but that might be stating the obvious. There's never a dull moment. Just when we think you've heard it all or seen it all, something new and interesting comes up. There's so many different things that happen in the outdoors: skateboarding on trails, geotagging, geocaching, drones. I love trying to understand this changing world we live in and how we can be a meaningful part of it. 

What are some unlikely partnerships and ways LNT is working with businesses?

We've had corporate partnerships for a long time, largely within the outdoor industry. That's really how we're funded. But recently, more companies that aren't necessarily tied to the outdoors or conservation are coming to us. One example is Pokémon Go. Niantic Labs in San Francisco is the technology team behind the app on your phone, which follows around these little creatures. They've expressed that they care about the environment and the outdoors. A lot of times, users are playing outside on a trail or at a park. We're working with Niantic to raise awareness of the impacts people might have while playing the game, such as incorporating messages in the app and signs at their festivals. That campaign alone is going to reach millions.

Leave No Trace has also been a corporate partner with Upslope Brewing Company since 2017. We work with them to put on the Backcountry Tap Room in Colorado event to educate participants how they can better care for our state's public lands. All funds raised from the Tap Room event are donated to Leave No Trace and support Colorado-based Hot Spots.

LNT's new social media guidance has been quite the topic this year. How did you come up with it? 

Social media is here to stay. That said, it's such a fast-paced world. What's next? I try to stay dialed into my daughter who's 18, my son who's 15, and another son who's 10. I'm not getting attached to any one thing because the minute we do, it's gone and it's evolving. In a lot of ways, social media is good. It's an unbelievable communication tool and we've seen that with the reach of our accounts. 

In terms of geotagging, it's a little more complicated. I think something that can be really frustrating to people is that we're not black and white. There's a gray area, always. We're not telling people not to geotag; we're not trying to be gatekeepers. Nobody is going to be out here policing. What we're asking people is to stop and think before they put an exact location or coordinates out there. Is this an area that can handle lots of foot traffic? What we're seeing is there are a lot of areas that just can't because they lack infrastructure. What we're really trying to do is empower people with information and skills that allow them to make the best decisions.

What's something that fascinates you about your work?

There's the science piece of what we do. Then there's the social and behavioral science, like why do people do what they do and what makes them tick? What can we say or express differently in signage that speaks more effectively or meaningfully? It's something we've been actively studying for the past three to four years. It's all wrapped up in values, attitudes, beliefs, how you were raised. all these things coming together. Talk about anything but black and white. It's such a great thing for us to include in our messaging. The biggest thing that we know is people want to know why. So pick up your poop but why? what's the problem? Once you get more into the practices, it gets a little more technical.

How have you seen Leave No Trace ethics catch on and make an impact over the last 25 years?

When people have a Leave No Trace ethic, they don't just flip a switch when they get off the trail. It becomes part of them. If we can bring this ethic into the outdoors, then people can take that to form a much bigger environmental ethic. The effect that we're having is far greater than the outdoor space. It's quite profound.