**NOTE** We’ve turned off comments on this post. If you’re fired up because we don’t like to see painted rocks in wilderness areas please check out our pals over at Leave No Trace for their guidance on outdoor ethics.

Spreading joy by leaving encouraging messages for others to happen upon sounds like something wonderful. The Kindness Rock Project grew out of love for others, but it has a negative side. It does not practice Leave No Trace principles and can actually harm the environment. Ambassador Laura talks about how this simple task violates LNT as well as other ways to spread joy.

Have you come across painted rocks in your community lately? Or perhaps you’ve joined one of the numerous groups popping up around the world, where people come together to paint uplifting messages on rocks before hiding them for others to find? Known as Kindness Rocks, these are becoming more and more common.

This all started when empowerment coach Megan Murphy began placing painted rocks along a beach that she walked daily. Her intention was to leave messages of hope for others to find in a time of need. Since then, the Kindness Rocks Project has become a global movement. With over 65,000 followers across Facebook and Instagram, along with multiple other spin-off groups forming, it is quickly becoming the latest trend.

According to the Kindness Rocks Project website, the ultimate goal is to inspire others and spread kindness and positivity through the world. People have been coming together to paint, hide, and search for rocks which they then share through social media channels. Participants claim that these rocks have helped them when they’re down, have formed a sense of community, are a fun project to do with their children, and have gotten them outside exploring more.

Seems harmless, right? Unfortunately, there is a downside.

As an outdoor enthusiast, my thoughts automatically go to the potentially negative environmental impact that Kindness Rocks can have and how this project relates to Leave No Trace (LNT).

First of all, people have been collecting rocks to paint, many times taking them from natural habitats.

Since smooth river rocks make the ideal surface, people are taking them from coastlines and rivers where removal of rocks can disrupt river flow, the habitat of plants and animals, and contribute to erosion.

As with most things, it may seem harmless if you’re only one person taking a couple of rocks. But changing these environments even slightly can have a huge impact. When more and more people start doing it, it becomes a problem.

The second issue comes with the painting process.

While the movement’s website encourages the use of non-toxic paints, the fact that people are doing this in their own homes with no oversight means that it is highly likely that not all participants are using safe paints. And all paints, toxic or not, are not natural. Once exposed to the elements, these paints break down and end up in soils and waterways, impacting environments far removed from wherever they have been placed.

Where and how the rocks are placed can also be an issue.

Some cities have approved designated rock gardens which operate on a take-one- leave-one basis. However, the rocks have also been placed randomly, where people seek them out in a scavenger hunt-like search. A growing number of rocks have been showing up in parks, city streets, and even out in natural areas. While one or two may not be noticeable, many become graffiti-like and disruptive. And despite warnings on the website that placing rocks in National Forests and National Parks is “frowned upon,” people are still placing them there.

This directly contradicts Leave No Trace principles. State and National parks have had to issue statements asking visitors not to place rocks in these natural areas and have been forced to dedicate resources to removing them.

In an effort at educating those who may not be aware, here is a quick review of some of the Leave No Trace principles relevant to this discussion:

•  Leave what you find – this applies to anything you find in natural areas, including rocks. As mentioned, removing rocks can be incredibly disruptive to ecosystems and landscapes. Do not collect rocks from natural areas.

Respect wildlife – this includes not disturbing their habitats by taking rocks or by placing rocks in natural areas. Keep paints out of their food and water sources.

Be considerate of other visitors – many of us go out into nature to get away from human- altered environments. Littering the ground with painted rocks can take away from the unspoiled feeling that we’re looking for.

I realize that people who are participating in this have the best of intentions. They’re looking to form a community and brighten someone’s day. Which is great!

But if you’re looking to make the world a more positive and kind place, there are many ways you can do this without infringing on LNT.

Smile and hold the door for someone. Buy a coffee for the next person in line. Donate to your favourite charity. Help out with a trail cleanup project. Shop locally and get to know the business owners. Participate in a community garden project. Shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk. Volunteer. The possibilities are endless.

And to those who argue that placing Kindness Rocks in natural areas is good because it gets people outside (similar to last year’s Pokemon Go craze), I say this: Since when do we need apps and hashtags and the promise of coming across a colourful rock to get us outside? I may be preaching to the choir here but, for me, there are plenty of things to discover organically in nature and this is reason enough to explore the outdoors. No painted rock will ever be able to compete with a trail through a moss-covered forest or watching the sun set behind a mountain peak. And frankly, these things do more for my soul than inspirational quotes or a kind note ever will.