Wilderness recreation or wreckreation

Guest Commentary
Gary Macfarlane from Wilderness Watch
Thursday, February 6, 2020

Many wilderness advocates, scientists, and public land managers have long recognized the threat that excessive recreational use poses for Wilderness. Howard Zahniser, the Wilderness Act’s author, warned over 50 years ago that Wilderness can be threatened “from development for recreation.” He emphasized the need for humility and restraint in our dealing with Wilderness. The 1978 edition of Wilderness Management, the definitive professional tome on Wilderness management, summed it up: “There is a real danger of loving wilderness to death.” The 1964 Wilderness Act itself warned of overuse. It stated “that an increasing population” could destroy all wildlands. Hence the need for the Act. The U.S. population is 137 million people more than 1964 and world population has more than doubled with corresponding pressure and impacts from recreational activities.

And we are witnessing the increased recreational demand. Take for example a small, fragile, and unique rock formation in the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness. This remote area straddling the Arizona/Utah border is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The agency is now considering allowing 96 people per day to visit -- over a 400% increase from previous regulations. Due to the internet and other marketing of this Wilderness, including by BLM, that agency now claims the “increase in public demand dramatically underscores the need to consider increasing visitor access” to this part of the Wilderness. Really? Nearly a quarter of a million people wanted to visit the area in 2018! Does BLM seriously expect Wilderness can be maintained by allowing almost 100 people per day at one small, fragile feature? What ever happened to the management concern of loving Wilderness to death?

Wildlife too, is harmed by the lack of recreational restraints. It is not just motorized users, or even mechanized users, who impact wildlife. Recent research suggests all types of trail recreation displace elk. Hikers and horseback riders displace elk, albeit less than mountain bikes and motorized vehicles. Other research documents an elk herd in and around Vail, Colorado that decreased from 1,000 to about 50 elk due to trail-based recreation of all types. That herd could soon disappear.

Even the sound of human voices affect wildlife, according to a study done by scientists in California. They found, “Humans have supplanted large carnivores as apex predators in many systems, and similarly pervasive impacts may now result from fear of the human ‘super predator’.”

In spite of increased Wilderness use, there has been extensive hand-wringing by agency bureaucrats, politicians of both parties, and especially representatives of the recreation industry—even the non-motorized segment which is often erroneously conflated with conservation interests. They are worried about the future of outdoor recreation because of supposed declining interest by children. Of course their answer is more marketing, access, commodification, outfitters and fees. And more profiteering. Wilderness won’t likely be spared.

Recent bipartisan legislation to boost outfitting (and fees) on public land--going by innocuous terms such as “Recreation Not Red Tape” and “Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation”-- portends a future of ever-increasing recreation on public lands pushed by the industry for which we all shall be charged and for which wildness, wildlife and Wilderness will all suffer greatly.

Decades ago, Aldo Leopold wrote that recreational development was not about building roads but “building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.” His perceptive advice is still relevant today. For Wilderness and all life forms of wild country to survive, we need humility and restraint in our wildland recreation. Indeed, those same qualities will be needed if we are to survive at all.


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