Don’t pick wildflowers. Don’t feed the animals. Campfires should not be left unattended. Anyone who has been to a U.S. national park understands there are certain rules to follow. However, the average summer traveler may not be aware of just how many laws and regulations apply to them during their annual park visits — and many of them carry hefty fines, or worse.
Rule #1: Don’t fish with live bait
What the law says: “Possessing or using as bait for fishing in fresh waters, live or dead minnows or other bait fish, amphibians, nonpreserved fish eggs or fish roe, except in designated waters.”
This might seem like a silly rule, but it’s serious business to NPS biologists. Most lakes, ponds, and other popular fishing spots located within a given park are also highly fragile ecosystems whose balance can be easily upended by the slightest disturbance — say, a non-native minnow that wasn’t quite attached to the hook, or a couple of fish eggs that manage to secrete chemicals into the water. The only areas where this type of bait isn’t prohibited are those where invasive, non-native species have already made their mark — but even these spots may be off-limits if restoration efforts are underway.
Rule #2: “No burning” applies to your lungs, as well
What the law says: “The superintendent may designate a portion of a park area, or all or a portion of a building, structure or facility as closed to smoking when necessary to protect park resources, reduce the risk of fire, or prevent conflicts among visitor use activities. Smoking in an area or location so designated is prohibited.”
During the dog days of summer, don’t be surprised to see a lot of signs indicating a parkwide (or in some cases, statewide) burn ban. This measure is typically enacted when moisture reaches its lowest point of the year, and the park’s floral undergrowth essentially serves as kindling if lightning strikes or a stray spark escapes a campfire. Anything that burns or smolders is covered under the burn ban — not only campfires and gas stoves, but also cigarettes, cigars and anything else you might smoke (if you catch our drift). Don’t expect park rangers to look the other way on these seemingly minor violations, either; according to tne National Fire Prevention Agency, smokers cause more than 90,000 fires every year, and law enforcement officials take this statistic very seriously. If you get caught flicking a cigarette during a burn ban, don’t expect a fine — chances are you’ll get some jail time, especially if a fire starts.
Rule #3: If the neighboring campsite can hear your music, then it’s too loud
What the law says: “Operating… an audio device, such as a radio, television set, tape deck or musical instrument, in a manner: (i) That exceeds a noise level of 60 decibels measured on the A‑weighted scale at 50 feet; or, if below that level, nevertheless; (ii) makes noise which is unreasonable, considering the nature and purpose of the actor’s conduct, location, time of day or night, purpose for which the area was established, impact on park users, and other factors that would govern the conduct of a reasonably prudent person under the circumstances.”
Before you nod your head and say, ‘no arguments here’, let’s discuss how loud 60 decibels actually is. According to Industrial Noise Control, Inc., 60 decibels is roughly equivalent to a normal conversation in an office or restaurant, or the hum of an air conditioning unit from 100 feet away. So, if you’re that dude who always packs along a subwoofer to ‘unleash the power’ of his Linkin Park playlist, this means you might want to invest in a pair of headphones. Because even in the best-case scenario, someone in a uniform will probably tell you to turn that noise down.
Rule #4: Think again, stoners
What the law says: “The possession of a controlled substance, unless such substance was obtained by the possessor directly, or pursuant to a valid prescription or order, from a practitioner acting in the course of professional practice or otherwise allowed by Federal or State law.”
Here’s where things get tricky. Last fall, two U.S. states known for their national parks, Colorado and Washington, passed initiatives to decriminalize recreational marijuana use for residents, as well as out-of-state visitors. Under the statute printed above, one might assume that this statewide herb-friendliness also extended to national parks. But this is not the case, since the decriminalization initiatives made no concessions for getting high on federal land. So if smoking out your tent is high on your camping priorities list, keep in mind that you’re still breaking the law, and park rangers will probably not only cite you for possession and/or illegal drug use, but also confiscate your property.
Rule #5: Leave the firecrackers at home
What the law says: “Using or possessing fireworks and firecrackers is prohibited, except pursuant to the terms and conditions of a permit or in designated areas under such conditions as the superintendent may establish, and in accordance with applicable State law.”
Obviously, you’re not allowed to detonate fireworks in a national park. However, the law also prohibits park visitors from having fireworks in their possession at any time during their stay. “Fireworks” in this instance refers to any type of combustible noise-maker — even sparklers and other ‘minor league’ models. And the law is pretty clear: no fireworks in your backpack, your tent, or your vehicle. Not even a couple of bottle rockets, not even on the Fourth of July. Especially on the Fourth of July.
Rule #6: Put a leash on your dog
What the law says: Failing to crate, cage, restrain on a leash which shall not exceed six feet in length, or otherwise physically confine a pet at all times.
You are more than welcome to bring your dog into just about any national park — if you run into a good-humored park ranger, he or she might even hook you up with a few plastic bags. But think twice before unleashing your puppy on the wild terrain. Any dog owner can attest to their animal’s ability to desecrate pristine areas within a matter of seconds, so try to picture the effect he will have on a natural ecosystem not accustomed to canine saliva, urine, feces, et al. This rule, however minor it may seem, is enforced at virtually every national park in the United States; some let it slide in parking lots, but others require dogs to remain on their leash at all times. Better to err on the side of caution. And please, pick up after him.