THE RECREATION THREAT
Twenty-five years ago, as the wilderness movement was just beginning
to gain momentum, environmentalists prepared to do battle against those
who were mostly likely to destroy the dwindling wildlands. For most
of us, the enemy was easy to identify--the extractive industries
in the West posed a constant threat to the deserts and mountains of
the region. Cattle ranching, strip and hard rock mining, oil and gas
exploration, clear-cut logging--all of these industries had, for almost
a century, enjoyed carte blanche access and approval from the government
to exploit the natural resources of public lands. Now, finally, these
operations were receiving the scrutiny and criticism that they had always
In the early 1980s, I still remember a flurry of seismic activity
by the oil and gas companies along the edges of Arches National Park.
As a seasonal ranger, I took a dim view of the work. The crews dozed
new roads for their equipment right to the park boundary. Many of those
tracks are there today, almost twenty years later.
If there was any consolation in all this, it was the fact that,
once the seismic crews had done their work and recorded their data,
they left. The heavy equipment was loaded and hauled away and, despite
the scars the desert otherwise returned to normal. The silence came
back as did most of the critters that had been run off by the noise.
We had hoped and even assumed that those equipment tracks would
now slowly disappear as the desert began the slow process of restoring
itself. But it never got the chance. Today many of those tracks are
used regularly by mountain bikers. The scars never had the chance to
heal and the silence never really returned, at least not in any similar
to two decades ago.
Recreation is now leaving its own ugly scars.
The increasing impacts from non-motorized recreation are only
beginning to be recognized by many environmentalists as a real threat
to the future of wildlands. The last decade has brought staggering increases
in visitation to places like the canyon country and we've heard the
national park statistics--at Arches National Park, visitation has jumped
from less than 300,000 in 1976 to numbers approaching one million in
2000. Numbers are similar at other parks in the region. But park statistics
don't even begin to tell the true story of public land use--in the Canyonlands
area, for example, those vast oceans of BLM and Forest Service lands
that surround the parks were virtually untouched by recreation before
1985. If the public lands could survive Jeep Safari, they were pretty
safe for another year. A few jeepers made their way onto the back roads
and jeep tracks; otherwise it was pretty quiet out there. Virtually
nobody hiked in the BLM backcountry and mountain bikes had not yet found
their way to Moab. Guided tours were limited mostly to jeep excursions
and river trips.
Today, on any given weekend, the dirt road junctions with US
191, north and south of Moab, are choked with bike-toting SUVs and Saabs.
Tens of thousands of non-motorized recreationists launch their non-polluting
vehicles onto old dirt tracks left from the uranium age. Even off-trail
backcountry gems and "secret" places, unknown to most until
a decade ago, are visited daily. Surely the wilderness is not what it
used to be.
This assault on the wild country is a bit more insidious than
the groan and crunch of a D9 Cat or a Husquavara chainsaw. The degradation
to the land is there and getting worse by the month, but doesn't bear
the catastrophic scars of heavy equipment. The physical damage comes
from footprints and bike tracks, stomped into the desert over and over
again, by thousands of recreationists who have no idea what damage they're
causing. And they are attacking an element of wilderness that is more
difficult to quantify than simple physical degradation of the resource.
It's called solitude and, unfortunately, its definition seems to be
Solitude, according to the dictionary means:
The quality of being alone or remote from society, implying
a condition of being apart from all human beings, or of being cut off
by wish or compulsion from one's usual associates.
This was one of the criteria for wilderness when the government
and environmental groups began to inventory public lands in the 1970s.
Solitude meant not so much an escape from the human race, as
an escape to an unfettered and unmarred natural world. For as
long as I can remember, managers of public lands have set limits on
the size of hiking groups and attempted, at least, to minimize the impacts
from overuse--even from the most well-intentioned. But lately, solitude
has come to mean different things to different people. Bikers and hikers
come in large groups now, ten, fifteen, as many as twenty, to "explore"
the backcountry. They have a limited amount of time and they all want
to know, all these thousands of recreationists, where all the "secret
places are, where nobody else goes.
Right. There are indeed secret places out there, but not nearly
as many as there used to be. The best way to destroy the anonymity of
these hidden wonders is to talk about them. And everybody seems to be
Guide Books make good kindling
Guide books are responsible for much of the destruction. Until
20 years ago, guide books were benign, even helpful publications that
provided information and advice to tourists about places they already
knew existed. We can all use some help finding our way through New York.
I've used guide books to help me avoid making a fool of myself in Australia.
They can be a useful tool and can also be a benefit to small towns like
Moab. They can tell you about the off beat bed & breakfast or the
struggling high-quality cafe'. I think they're great.
But especially in the last 15 years, the proliferation of backcountry
guide books and specialty tour guides is changing the face of public
lands, diminishing its solitude, and causing ever-increasing resource
damage. Often the authors of these books and the leaders of the tours
are well-intentioned and love the land and honestly want to share that
love with their readers. Others are motivated by factors not nearly
so pure. But regardless of motive, the results are often the same.
I first recognized the dangers of tour guides more than 25 years
ago. I loved hiking in the Grand Canyon, and even then, the two main
trails on the South Rim were beginning to resemble a New York City sidewalk--it
even smelled like urine (although in the case of the Canyon, mules were
to blame). But the crowds were more than I could endure and I asked
a ranger for a solution. He suggested I check out some of the abandoned
South Rim trails. Nobody ever uses them, he said; I didn't even need
a permit. But the topo maps still showed some of the old paths and with
a little work, I was able to locate the trailheads of the Hermit Trail,
the Grandview Trail, and the Hance Trail. The old trails were in disrepair
and rock slides had taken out sections over the years, but they were
empty and quiet and I loved hiking them. I had not received special
treatment--I had simply been imaginative enough to ask for an alternative.
I hoped to come back there forever.
But just a couple of years later, on a return trip to the South
Rim, I was loitering in a Fred Harvey gift shop when I spied a small
booklet among the post cards and picture books. It said:
A GUIDE TO THE PRIMITIVE TRAILS OF THE
I can still remember that title and the feeling that someone
had hit me with 240 volts. I've felt it many times since, but that was
the first time and I knew that "forever" just didn't exist.
In just sixteen months, hiker use on the old trails had increased so
dramatically that a permit system was initiated and the waiting list
for the Hermit Trail was a year. A YEAR!
In the years and decades to follow, the primitive trails of the
Grand Canyon were on their way to becoming bumper-to-bumper, and although
the strictly enforced permit system imposed by the Park Service has
helped to ease impacts from overuse, waiting to get a permit can be
a lifetime experience.
And since those early guides to primitive areas first made their
way to book store shelves, hundreds of others have been whiten for every
natural area in America--or what WAS natural.
No guide book writer is as prolific as Michael Kelsey. Over the
last 15 years Kelsey has penned numerous guide books for southern Utah
and the world. I met Kelsey once near the summit of my favorite mountain
in southern Utah. He wasn't interested in chatting and seemed to be
in a hurry on that beautiful June morning and it turned out he was.
Kelsey is always in a hurry. I learned that he times his hikes and rarely
if ever returns to the same place. His sprints up mountains and down
lonely canyons are legendary and he advises his readers to double the
times he records in his books.
Kelsey and other writers have opened the doors to hundreds of
pristine canyons and valleys and mountain meadows that no one simply
thought to visit before--it just didn't occur to them. And now many
of those places are threatened. Several years ago, in Canyonlands National
Park, the superintendent actually closed sections of the Needles and
Maze districts because impacts caused directly by Kelsey's books were
causing irreparable damage. Here's what Kelsey had to say about one
of those locations:
"The NPS considers this to be a special place because it
was left more pristine than any other place. They have never promoted
it in any way and will not mention it to you, unless you mention it
to them first. They have never put it on any maps either, so few people
know about it."
In the very next sentence, he gives detailed directions. "The
rangers will tell you it's difficult," he warns, "but it's
Some environmental groups have repudiated guide books--it has
been the policy of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance to publicly
oppose backcountry guide books, but others have embraced them and use
Today guide books continue to occupy ever-expanding shelf space
in regional book stores and show no sign of losing popularity.
I always thought that no one could come up with an idea that
posed a greater threat to backcountry treasures than some of these guide
books. But, as always, I underestimated the free enterprise system and
the imagination of enviropreneurs. If there is a way to make money off
the beauty of the land, someone will think of it. And someone has.
About 45 years ago, Ed Abbey was out in the hot red rocks of
the Canyonlands, wandering, as was his habit, and discovered an arch.
It wasn't a huge span, but the setting was incredible..it sat on the
rim of a 150 foot canyon and across the gap, the varnished walls climbed
another hundred feet. It was as peaceful and serene a spot as he had
known. But it was rarely visited by others and became another forgotten
places, supremely protected by its own anonymity. Twenty years later,
I was hiking in the area and accidentally stumbled upon the same arch,
or at least I thought it was. It had the same effect on me. It was so
precious that its location became a well-guarded secret. I felt like
my own presence there was an intrusion and I limited my visits, simply
because I often think the best way we can show our love for special
places is to leave them alone.
Then one day, I was having coffee with a friend of mine when
she began to describe a hike she'd taken the previous day. The more
my friend talked, the more familiar the hike sounded. It was the arch
and she'd been led to it on a guided tour. She was part of a trial run
for a new company that intends to lead hikers to the arch, rapel them
into the canyon and return them to their cars--an eight hour hike for
about $120. They'll take up to six hikers per trip which is pretty good
money for a day's work, especially when you consider that the hikers
have to provide their own transportation.
Then I learned that another company had been leading the same
hike for more than a year. In fact, since 1999, this company, owned
by a sometime-BASE jumper and accustomed to a few thrills with his hikes,
has led close to 100 tours and as many as 500 people to the arch. There
were no trails in that area, but there are now. And at the arch itself,
the company leaves its climbing harness tied to a pinion tree. Incredibly,
most of the customers are healthy men and women in their 20s and 30s.
The owners of these companies have not been impressed by my concerns.
One called me a hypocrite and thinks Ed Abbey would be proud of him
for being "adventurous." A group of Twenty-somethings being
led to an arch and a quick rapel for 120 bucks a head. Some adventurers.
Neither of these enviropreneurs sees the danger in taking ever
increasing numbers of recreationists into the backcountry. "There's
no evidence that what we're doing is causing any damage," one insisted.
The damage is already there, but I asked him to consider this: A year
ago, there was just one adrenalin tour company leading helpless young
jocks to these hidden wonders. And he's been quite successful. Now another
company comes along and, of course, he wants to be just as successful
as his competitor.
What could happen next? Eventually yet another enviropreneur
will see an opportunity and will establish a third company--all of them
going to the same places. And then another. And another.
Some day, maybe sooner than later, these pioneer enviropreneurs
will see the increasing damage and decreasing profits from all the copycat
competition and they'll rise up in self-righteous indignation. They'll
be furious. "The place is ruined!" they'll scream. Their only
option will be to find a new place to exploit--one that hasn't
Where does it end?
In the next 50 years, the population of the rural West will
increase exponentially, particularly in the New West magnet towns like
Moab. We are watching a dramatic change in the way the canyon country
of southeast Utah is used. People come to recreate--to hike and bike
and to run their rafts and kayaks. They come to challenge the sheer
vertical sandstone cliffs with ropes and pitons and carabiniers. But
enjoying the Great Outdoors is a privilege and carries with it a responsibility.
It's not enough to be an "outdoor enthusiast" or a "recreationist."
We come here to play, but this is not a playground. Many of us make
living, directly or indirectly, from the beauty of this land, but we
cannot make a living at the land's expense.
What happens in the years and decades to come depends upon our
own respect and reverence for these canyons and mesas and mountains--or
the lack of it.