Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Recreation vs. Conservation?

A delayed but still relevant personal response to a flurry of anti-recreation articles this spring.

I spent the summer of 2010 living in the home of Mardy Murie, an adventurer and conservationist known widely as the “grandmother” of the conservation movement. I was fortunate to live as a guest of the Muries (at least in spirit) under the shadow of the Grand Teton. My guest room door opened to the porch where the conservation movement was built in the middle of the last century, and it looked out over the legacy of permanently protected, accessible public lands we enjoy today.

As an intern for both the Murie Center and the Jackson office of the backcountry skiing advocacy group Winter Wildlands Alliance, I spent the summer working at the intersection of conservation and outdoor recreation – learning about the Muries and helping at the Ranch, while advocating for Wilderness protection and backcountry skiing. I also enjoyed the outdoors every day, exploring on on foot, on bike and on the end of a climbing rope, fishing the Snake, and listening to the elk bugle in the nearby field. My time there instilled in me a conservation ethic I will never forget.

As a member of Generation Y and a professional advocate for conservation and human powered recreation, I read with interest a couple of articles in the last few months that contend that recreation and environmental protection are at odds. These views don’t match up with my experience or with the approach to conservation I see the recreation community taking.

Experiencing the outdoors has been essential to the conservation ethic since the birth of the conservation movement. John Muir, Bob Marshall, Teddy Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, Olaus and Mardy Murie came to love wildlife and wild places, and dedicated their lives to their conservation, as a result of exploring and adventuring. The conservation legacy we cherish today was born out of these greats exploring and recreating outdoors.

To claim that the way people experience the outdoors today does not lead to “transformational” experiences is to misunderstand both the past and the present. Aldo Leopold wrote that our appreciation of nature and wildlife is in direct proportion to the energy we expend. Tail running, mountain biking and backcountry skiing—really all activities that could be deemed “too fast” —demand a lot of energy. When you are slumped over your bike gasping for air at the top of a trail, you have certainly worked hard enough to really appreciate the view and the pica calling from the talus.

Perhaps that is why the recreation community is doing so much for wildlife and landscape protection. We voluntarily close climbing areas for nesting raptors - and enforce the closure as a community, without any draconian laws. We identify almost a million acres of land in Colorado, valuable for both conservation and recreation, and successfully advocate for it to get the highest level of protection under the Roadless Rule. We organize locally as bikers, climbers, hikers, paddlers and skiers, and advocate for balanced land management and Wilderness.

The activities we use to get there may be different, but the conservation ethic of current generations is the same. As our lives become faster and our attention spans shorter, it is harder to connect people with the outdoors. In order to maintain—not to mention build—the constituency for conservation, we need to think differently about how to get young, diverse populations to experience the outdoors meaningfully. To do this, we need to foster close-to-home as well as backcountry recreation opportunities. Most of us would trade a trail run after work for a 10-day backpacking trip, but that daily dose of the outdoors will build potential new conservationists who will advocate for outdoor places. Not everyone will make this leap, but many will.

As an avid mountain biker and backcountry skier, I reject the notion that recreation and conservation are at odds. The very existence of the thriving recreation-based conservation movement is testament to my community’s recognition of its own impacts and its dedication to protecting wild places.

Outdoor recreation and conservation are mutually reinforcing. Our public lands and the movement to protect them deserve collaboration between old and new voices, not division.


  1. Thanks Tom. Beautifully and powerfully written. I would add that if old-guard conservationists and groups such as the NPCA and GYC really want to make a difference for the lands and wildlife they aspire to protect, they should embrace modern recreation instead of attacking and degrading it. They should make efforts to create ties among modern recreationists and pour resources into ensuring that all who venture into the wild come out with a strong voice for conservation.

  2. Bravo, Tom. I wouldn't care nearly as much about the land had I not immersed myself in it. My mountain bike is one of my favorite ways to do that. BTW, that's my favorite Edward Abbey quote you have up there too. ... "So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive..."

  3. The problem is that conservationists are not addressing the real issue here. Conservationists, (myself included) like to blame human powered recreationists (myself included) for causing harm to the environment, yet studies often prove that this is not the case.
    The real issue here is that conservationists, who don't partake in our sport, do not like seeing our presence because it diminishes their experience. For the most part, (and yes, there are some exceptions), the problem is experiential and not environmental. I too love solitude and prefer not to see or hear others. Hikers hate the speed of mountain bikes and the awkwardness of stepping aside to let bikers ride by, and we all seem to get irritated when another user group moves faster than we are moving. But instead of addressing these problems, they tell us we are damaging the environment.

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