6 Rules to Follow When Visiting a National Park

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.