It was the kid with the rocks that finally did it for Matthew Browning.
Browning was a ranger at Mount Mitchell State Park in North Carolina, and along with the other rangers he had been trained to give a little speech to children caught picking flowers, pocketing shells, or trying to make off with rocks. He explains it like this: “You are supposed to calmly kneel down and say, ‘I saw you picking the flower. That is so pretty! Now think about what would happen if every child picked a flower.’ And then they are supposed to have this moment of guilt.”
Browning had given this little talk many times. But on this day, in August 2009, he saw another ranger deliver it to a boy at the park restaurant, about age 8, with a fist full of rocks—rocks, Browning noticed, from the gravel road. “It was gravel we bought at the local store,” Browning says. “It made me sick. The boy was crestfallen. He was so excited about coming to the park that he wanted to take a little memento back with him. More than feeling empowered or excited to protect the natural world, now he is going to associate going to state parks with getting into trouble.”
The encounter got Browning thinking. What if every kid picked a rock or a flower? Would the park really turn into a desolate wasteland? Well, he figured, it depends on the rock, on the flower. “What kids were…