How Tread Lightly! Works

By: Dave Roos
Man alone in dirt outdoors.
Image Gallery: National Parks Off-roading can be fun, but it poses a major threat to many natural habitats. See pictures of national parks.
Carl Lyttle/Getty Images

There's something distinctly American about the rugged individualism associated with off-road recreation; it's just you, your vehicle and your own path through the wilds of nature. There is also something painfully ironic about a sport that prizes the beauty of untouched wilderness while running it over with huge knobby tires.

As off-roading -- a sport that includes ATVs, off-highway motorcycles, snowmobiles and four-wheel-drive vehicles like Jeeps and pickup trucks -- becomes more and more popular, it poses more of a threat to the health of remote natural habitats.


But off-roaders aren't the only culprits. The truth is that all outdoor recreation presents a risk to fragile ecosystems. If campers leave food and trash at a campsite, it can attract bears and clog streams with debris. Overfishing can deplete endangered marine populations into extinction. Even hikers can disturb the natural balance of a forest by tromping through sensitive breeding areas.

Experienced outdoor enthusiasts know that the future of their favorite activities relies on increased awareness of ethical recreation practices and active stewardship of the land on which they play.

In 1985, the U.S. Forestry Service launched the Tread Lightly! program to address the impact of outdoor recreation -- and off-road driving in particular -- on the great outdoors itself. In 1990, Tread Lightly! moved to the private sector, where it's now managed as a non-profit. The organization has become a powerful advocate for outdoor education and sustainable land management.

Tread Lightly! works closely with the public by training thousands of ordinary citizens to be Tread Trainers that promote the program's message in their communities. The organization also partners with industry leaders like Goodyear, Yamaha and Jeep to promote the ethical outdoor use of their products.

Keep reading to learn more about the mission and founding principles of Tread Lightly! and how you can get involved.


Tread Lightly! Mission

Tread Lightly! isn't trying to outlaw off-roading or spoil anybody's outdoor fun. In fact, the mission of Tread Lightly! is to ensure the long-term future of outdoor recreation by promoting responsible behavior today. It's all about finding a balance between humans and nature, between our desire to get out and enjoy the great outdoors and our desire to maintain a healthy environment for ourselves and our children.

A core belief of Tread Lightly! is the idea of land stewardship. Stewardship is the careful management of something entrusted to your care. As the top link on the food chain and the animal most capable of inflicting damage on nature, humans are the logical stewards of the great outdoors. (In the Biblical creation story, God gave man "dominion over… every living thing that moveth upon the earth.") It is our responsibility, therefore, to ensure that natural resources are managed with an eye on long-term sustainability.


The fundamental principles of Tread Lightly! can be summed up by the Tread Lightly! Pledge:

  • Travel and recreate with minimum impact. Don't ride motorized or mechanized vehicles into off-limits wilderness areas. Don't create new routes or expand existing trails. Stay clear of sensitive habitats and wetlands.
  • Respect the environment and the rights of others. If you're riding a motorized vehicle or watercraft, yield to hikers, horseback riders, bikers, kayaks and canoes. Get permission to enter private land. Obey all signs and be sensitive to wildlife.
  • Educate yourself; plan and prepare before you go. Make sure your vehicles and your equipment are in working order. Plan your route beforehand and bring along all necessary maps and GPS devices. Get all necessary permits when required by law.
  • Allow for future use of the outdoors; leave it better than you found it. Pack out your garbage (and any other litter that you find). Leave plants, animals and rocks where you found them -- take a picture instead. Volunteer to rebuild and restore trails.
  • Discover the rewards of responsible recreation. Nothing compares to the beauty and serenity of the outdoors. Preserve that beauty for future generations by using "common sense and common courtesy."

Tread Lightly! fulfills its mission by engaging in a number of advocacy and education programs. Read more about them on the next page.


Tread Lightly! Programs

Off-roaders in the woods.
Tread Lightly! helps off-roaders develop a healthy respect for nature.
Mike Powell/Getty Images

With funding from governmental agencies and industry partners, Tread Lightly! runs a variety of awareness, education, advocacy and restoration programs throughout the country.

The flagship Tread Lightly! program is the Tread Trainer initiative launched in 2003. Through this program, nature lovers and outdoor recreationists can become educated advocates for land stewardship in their communities.


The basic Tread Trainer course is an eight-hour crash course in outdoor ethics with a focus on motorized and mechanized vehicles. Trainees are then qualified to share the Tread Lightly! message with civic groups, outdoor clubs and conservation organizations in their area. There is also a two-day Master Trainer course for people already involved with community outreach and recreational training programs.

The Restoration for Recreation program, founded in 1997, uses a combination of government funds, private investments and volunteer labor to restore degraded outdoor recreation areas across the country. Projects have included trail restoration, campsite clean-ups, facility upgrades and even bridge construction.

The Tread Lightly! team brings its message directly to the great outdoors with the Road to Adventure trailer. The trailer travels to off-roading events and popular trailheads across the country to spread the message of ethical riding and responsible land management.

Tread Lightly! also develops public service announcements -- posters, print ads, online campaigns and radio spots -- that promote outdoor ethics. The latest campaign is called "Respected Access is Open Access" and targets the recreational shooting community. The announcements are distributed and cross-promoted by Tread Lightly!'s partners, which include the U.S. Forestry Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Yamaha and the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Tread Lightly! works closely with government land and water management agencies to support the important and underfunded work of these organizations. Tread Lightly! offers Tread Trainer courses to government employees, provides educational materials and brochures, and coordinates co-sponsored restoration projects.

In the next section, we'll explain how you can join Tread Lightly!.


Tread Lightly! Membership

The success of Tread Lightly! depends on the support and involvement of a broad range of players, from individual recreationists to outdoor retailers to corporate sponsors. With this in mind, Tread Lightly! offers a variety of membership and partnership options.

For individuals, a donation of $25 buys you an annual membership. Members receive free gifts and prize entries, a Tread Lightly! car decal, discounts from Tread Lightly! partners, discounts on Tread Lightly! gear -- T-shirts, jackets, hats and more -- and access to Tread Lightly! brochures and educational materials.


Retailers that specialize in outdoor gear and companies that outfit outdoor expeditions can also become members of Tread Lightly! for an annual fee of $50. They receive Tread Lightly! promotional materials and outdoor tips brochures for their stores and Tread Lightly! banner ads for their Web sites. They are also eligible for prize drawings and discounts for products like off-roading insurance.

Recreational clubs and associations can join or become official partners with Tread Lightly! for annual fees of $100 or $250 annually. Member Clubs receive loads of free brochures and newsletters, plus a large vinyl banner with the Tread Lightly! logo. Official Sponsor Clubs receive a special "Official Sponsor" logo to use on promotional materials and their website, plus voting rights on Tread Lightly! resolutions.

Corporations can benefit tremendously from close involvement with Tread Lightly!. First of all, by working with Tread Lightly!, a corporation ensures that recreationists will have ample areas to practice their favorite outdoor hobbies -- and use their favorite products --for years to come. Partnering with Tread Lightly! also improves corporate image and supports public relations efforts. It may also stave off government regulation of the outdoor sports industry if companies show that they're already positively engaged in environmental issues.

Magazines, Web sites and other media can also partner with Tread Lightly! to publish Tread Lightly! PSAs and produce editorial content that supports the Tread Lightly! message. Most of the major off-roading magazines are already Tread Lightly! media partners.

Let's wrap up our discussion of Tread Lightly! with a quick look at the benefits of the organization for sportsmen and the environment.


Benefits of Tread Lightly!

People on nature hike.
Tread Lightly! teaches its members how to enjoy nature ethically.
David De Lossy/Getty Images

Tread Lightly! is one of the most vocal and effective advocates for outdoor ethics, particularly in relation to motorized and mechanized vehicles. In addition to the organization's work in the United States, Tread Lightly! also has sister organizations in Canada and New Zealand.

The work of Tread Lightly! offers both tangible and intangible benefits for outdoor recreationists and the environment in which they play. Some of the tangible benefits are increased visibility and awareness of outdoor ethics issues through public service campaigns and community outreach efforts. Other tangible benefits are the trail restoration and construction work organized by Tread Lightly! and its partners.


One of the biggest intangible benefits of Tread Lightly! is that it fosters a wider culture of ethical outdoor recreation. Along with organizations like Leave No Trace, Tread Lightly! and its community of Tread Trainers spread a positive message of stewardship, not a set of restrictive rules. As more and more people become aware of the potentially destructive impact of sports like off-roading, the recreation culture itself will evolve a new set of expectations for ethical behavior, much like the awareness of global warming has fueled a green cultural shift.

As a non-profit organization, Tread Lightly! is in a unique position to connect the multiple stakeholders who impact the future of outdoor recreation in America. Tread Lightly! has the grassroots capability to organize volunteers to spread the outdoor ethics message and participate in restoration projects. It has the visibility to attract corporate sponsors who want to attach their name to the good work of land stewardship. And since Tread Lightly! was once a government program, it still has strong ties to government resources like the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and Army Corps of Engineers.

Keep reading for lots more information about outdoor recreation and the environment.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Tread Lightly! "About Us"
  • Tread Lightly! "Club Memberships"
  • Tread Lightly! "Corporate Memberships"
  • Tread Lightly! "Current Official Partners"
  • Tread Lightly! "Government Resource"
  • Tread Lightly! "Individual Memberships"
  • Tread Lightly! "Media Memberships"
  • Tread Lightly! "Online Awareness Course"
  • Tread Lightly! "Respected Access Campaign"
  • Tread Lightly! "Restoration for Recreation"
  • Tread Lightly! "Retailer Memberships"
  • Tread Lightly! "Tread Trainer"