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Raising Up a Fire: Stoked on Conservation?


Published 8/17/18 by Aldo Leopold Foundation 

Like most environmental educators and park interpreters, I have a strong commitment to sharing wild places with others. The beauty and wonder of our public lands create the perfect setting to share and nurture a land ethic with learners from all walks of life. For me, it is more than just a vocation, though—care for people, land, and communities infuse every part of my life. Every day, I work to foster intimate relationships between people and their landscape both in my professional and civic life. During 2014, I was fortunate to learn from and become one of the Land Ethic Leaders during a special session of the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s program hosted in Grand Teton National Park at the Murie Center. The experience stoked the fierce green fire within me to keep the land ethic alive and give voice to the Murie’s ecological wilderness values.

Stoke, passion, adrenaline, enthusiasm are driving the desire for bigger, higher, and faster outdoor experiences on wild lands. But does the scarcity of and diminishing health of America’s wild lands hold space for the increasing intensity of recreational use? Just how effective is this increased use in generating stewardship and conservation practices and civic action among users?

There is a regular conversation about the need for more developed trails, the conundrum of over-use of the backcountry, declining ecological health, declining apex predator populations, declining water supply, and warming temperatures. In spite of this, if we just do whatever makes us happy, somehow stoke will save us all and the environment too – at least that’s what the growing trend seems to reveal. However, Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife ecology and the United States’ wilderness system, and Ethan Linck more recently, caution against equating stoke on the landscape to practicing conservation.

Friday afternoon’s westbound traffic fills the freeway up the foothills and over the continental divide as the weekly exodus ensues to escape the concrete jungle of Colorado’s metropolitan front range. Seekers are pursuing an escape, and yet they are all fleeing together. It is a wonder if they are finding what they’re looking for. Aldo Leopold wondered the same thing in 1949 stating, “The greater the exodus, the smaller per-capita ration of peace, solitude, wildlife, and scenery, and the longer the migration to reach them.” Yet, the seekers continue to leave earlier in the day, drive further, and spend more time bottlenecked on the freeway in pursuit of finding something. Yet, as Leopold astutely pointed out, “to him who seeks something more, recreation has become a self-destructive process of seeking but never quite finding, a major frustration of mechanized society.”

Can the landscape withstand this tremendous increase in use? Despite population growth and unsustainable use of wild lands the invitation for more has not decreased; instead more people, more business, more recreation, and more tourism is encouraged. For example, my home state of Colorado has branded itself with a lifestyle of recreation and as an extraordinary place that welcomes passionate creative business. During 2015, Governor Hickenlooper unveiled his Colorado the Beautiful initiative with the intent to grow, enhance, connect, and market statewide outdoor recreation resources and opportunities. This culture of “more” conflicts with the existing scarcity and need for protection of wild lands. Have we not taken Leopold’s words to heart?

Leopold stated, “recreational use is self-destructive” when more people are concentrated and not dispersed on any given area. Recreation can defeat its own purpose. Leopold Scholars Curt Meine and Richard Knight have explained, “Leopold feared that the excitement, adventure, and mystery of being outdoors seeking something was being turned into just the latest in a long line of exploitive American industries.” In a state that promotes following your passion and finding your stoke, is there a tipping point?

Over 70 years ago, Leopold warned of recreation being equated to an economic resource and not that of a regenerative restoring experience with the natural world. As Leopold suggested, the situation is still similar in 2018: wild land advocacy organizations are working to exclude roads from wild areas while the office for economic development is working to extend use to more people. Both sides claim they are fighting for a similar cause. The outdoor industry completely relies upon the landscape as an economic resource by consistently encouraging more use. Is this long view a sustainable business approach? No doubt the outdoor recreation community values the same public lands and waters as the conservation community, but are their core intentions and long-term visions compatible?

Many of today’s mass-users of wild places are seeking a thrill. They are seeking bigger adventures, higher peaks, and faster pursuits. Experiencing incredible biological diversity phenomenon, ecological restoration successes, or encountering relationships with solitude and the untrammeled sublime are not common headlines of social media posts. Many are utilizing the backcountry as a gym or track for endurance training. And upon returning home, photos and videos are posted to claim one’s ‘trophies’ or provide evidence of having been high on stoke. The trophies are desirable and entice the masses to otherwise less visited places resulting in overuse, ecological damage, and a diminished quality of experience for others in these crowded backcountry areas. Leopold saw this 70 years ago: “mass-use tends to dilute the quality of organic trophies… and to induce damage to other resources such as… natural vegetation.”

In a recent article, Linck claims, “stoke has… begun to mediate our relationship with the natural world.” Pursuits of unbridled enthusiasm and visceral experience are becoming the standard of outdoor recreationists. What if stoke for epic experiences in the backcountry actually raised up a fire for engagement and participation in civic action for ecosystem protection? Are the outdoor recreation and conservation communities unified in their work of fostering a culture of visceral desire and passion for civic participation? One must remember Leopold’s wise words: “Recreation… is not the outdoors, but our reaction to it.”

Sarah R. Johnson, MAEd, is a watershed education specialist based in Carbondale, Colorado.

Feature photo, top, courtesy of Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington / CC BY 2.0.

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