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What Toll On Wildness When Humans Want It All?
TOM SADLER: Todd, you and I have been kicking around ethical questions for a few weeks now and I would like to dig into another one—involving outdoor recreation. You up for that?
April 7, 2021
What Toll On Wildness When Humans Want It All?
MoJo's The Week That Is: When it comes to recreational impacts, we have to look ourselves in the mirror—and that's probably why we deny we are displacing wildlife
Every week in “The Week That Is,” journalist and Mountain Journal founder Todd Wilkinson joins MoJo’s national Washington DC correspondent Tom Sadler in discussions of topical events relating to the nation’s capital city and/or the public land West. Today's conversation centers around the question of whether we as backcountry recreationists are loving places to death at the expense of Greater Yellowstone's unparalleled wildlife.
Real wildness are the rare places where rare species, hard for humans to co-exist with, are able to persist. This is what makes Greater Yellowstone novel in the 21st century of of the American West. Artwork by Mary Roberson. To see more of her acclaimed collectible work visit maryroberson.com
TOM SADLER: Todd, you and I have been kicking around ethical questions for a few weeks now and I would like to dig into another one—involving outdoor recreation. You up for that?
TODD WILKINSON: Sure, go ahead.
TS: As every Mountain Journal reader knows by now from its reporting, the Greater Yellowstone’s backcountry supports a complement of species diversity in mammals that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the Lower 48. It's like having a wild unicorn in the Anthropocene. This alone confirms its rareness and specialness. A few of John Potter’s recent cartoons for MoJo touched upon the impact recreation is having on our backcountry. I hear people say, “We are loving our public lands to death.” Do you think that is true?
TW: Hmm. I think we need to reframe exactly what we’re talking about. I would say that ”loving them to death” may make for a good cliché, but it is trite, amorphous and misleading because most people would not abuse to death something they respect, love and value, would they?
TS: You’ve mentioned before that it's dangerous to generalize about public lands because each region is distinct and the challenges are geographically contextual.
TW: That’s right. Other bioregions in the Lower 48 that don’t have large mammal herds still migrating across the landscape might be able to absorb more development pressure on the edges and a higher volume of recreational use, but disturbance here can have real negative consequences. Most of those other bioregions have lost most of their megafauna and it's not going to return.
TW: It’s a simple matter of people. Sensitive wildlife don’t do well around the bustle of a lot of people, and that includes a lot of people and domestic dogs. Just for the record, I have a dog, too but I'm questioning whether to take her certain places.
TS: So if we’re thinking about “loving places to death,” how is it different in Greater Yellowstone?
TW: We have more to lose from a standpoint of ecological intactness supporting large mammal migrations and dozens of species related to them than any other region and we’re being inundated by more people moving, visiting and recreating here. I have found that when most people become aware of what is a stake in Greater Yellowstone they are willing to put their own self-focused desires aside and adjust their behavior to benefit wildlife.
The problem is that tourism promotors, visitors, and even many citizens who live here may not be “wildlife conscious”—very knowledgeable about what wildlife need to survive or the science that exists surrounding human impacts on wildlife. The cause of elevating ecological awareness is an urgent one and that’s what MoJo, as a journalistic entity, is trying to do.
Is it possible to have it all—to maintain healthy populations of wildlife as they exist in Greater Yellowstone and nowhere else in the facing of booming development on private land and rising numbers of outdoor recreationists moving through public lands? Scientists argue it's not, that choices have to be made and that the most important involves humans deciding whether they are willing to modify or limit their behavior in order to protect habitat wildlife needs. Graphic created by Gus O'Keefe/Mountain Journal. Most images public domain. Photo of mansion via Flickr user Paul Saberman; and clearcut photo via Flickr user Sam Beebe
TS: So how would you characterize the challenge?
TW: When I was younger, I didn't reflect much on impact when I was outside exploring. I was pretty oblivious.
TS: What changed?
TW: Once you become aware, you can never go back and become unaware again. To me, based on 35 years of reporting from here and other wild places, what “loving to death” really means is too many people using places that have a finite capacity for handling human pressure—pressure that harms a place's special essence if defined by the kind of animals that can live there. That includes unfragmented landscapes where sensitive wildlife species live. As you noted, there aren’t many of those left.
TS: So, how do we deal with that and educate our readers, user groups and elected officials, especially if its something they don't want to hear? Maybe they don't want to become aware.
TW: Journalism doesn't exist to only tell people what they want to hear. Part of our job is to inform readers of what they don't know and provide them with fact-based information that may sometimes cause them to feel uncomfortable. This is probably one of those issues. Look, I love to recreate in the great outdoors. Who doesn’t? I have my whole life. I grew up riding snowmobiles to hockey practice on outdoor ice in the North Woods! If you presented me with a list of activities I would say I support “all of the above”—including motorized— but not all of them happening in the same wildlands or even individually are appropriate for wildlife conservation in certain places. There are some who see outdoor recreation as a sacred cow that shouldn’t be scrutinized and if you do you're branded a traitor. All forms of outdoor recreation have impacts; some are more impactful than others. This is really a matter of being pro-wildlife persistence and not anti-recreation.
Journalism doesn't exist to only tell people what they want to hear. Part of our job is to inform readers of what they don't know and provide them with fact-based information that may sometimes cause them to feel uncomfortable. This is probably one of those issues.
TS: I sense that a reckoning is coming.
TW: More people are getting outside and using public lands and that's a success story! Let's not lose sight of that. However, we as a society have seldom really pondered the impacts of outdoor recreation honestly and in good faith—especially on wildlands. No one wants to admit he is part of the problem. Scientists say these issues don't matter as much if we’re building trails through the suburbs. I know there are good people sitting in state tourism offices who tout the economic value of outdoor recreation and indeed it’s huge—so is the economic value of other resource extraction activities. They and some conservationists I know also portray outdoor recreation as being basically ecologically benign compared to logging, mining, oil and gas development and cattle grazing—but it’s obviously not. In fact, the irony is that the infrastructure we’re building and expanding for servicing outdoor recreation is hugely impactful on wildlife in its own way. Would someone argue that recreational destinations like Big Sky or Grand Targhee are more benign than logging? The science is irrefutable—at least from the standpoint of a journalist who has spoken with lots of wildlife researchers and read lots of peer-reviewed scientific journal articles.
TS: Isn’t the Greater Yellowstone facing unprecedented levels of growth both in terms of private land development in the valleys and outdoor recreation on public lands coming in a variety of forms?
TW: Yes, and that’s the concern—wildlife and the habitat it needs is facing a double whammy. Without giving much reflection to cause and effect or unintended consequences, we are thoughtlessly, some say, transforming nature into a human anthill.
This isn’t an observation that is anti any specific use; it’s about trying to assess cumulative effects. It’s about asking: Do our desires for having fun and entertainment always have to take precedence over everything under the sun, including wildlife that only want safe places free of overwhelming human disturbance in order to exist?
TS: For years I’ve been a proponent of touting the recreation economy as an alternative to say clearcut logging. More opportunity to access in the outdoors means more economic activity. There are tremendous benefits for conservation that comes from that economic activity, like excise taxes, donations to conservation organizations and boots on the ground volunteer labor. But here is the tricky part; that increased access, as we have pointed out, leads to ecological systems challenges on the land. How should we respond to this influx of users?
TW: For one, and I’m only relating what respected scientists have told me, we need a baseline of what wildlife were there before the gates are thrown open for large and growing uses to happen.That has almost never happened with agencies like the Forest Service. You don’t start measuring after you’ve allowed, say, a wilderness study area to be inundated with growing numbers of mechanized users. Why? Because, if you do without having a baseline, you don’t know what has already been lost in terms of wildlife displacement. There’s a compelling study about the impact of recreationists on elk and it's just one. (Click here to read it). There's another analysis by researchers at Colorado State University and Wildlife Conservation Society. (Read about that by clicking here). And ski towns in Colorado are seeing impacts of outdoor recreation on elk which many see as a prelude to the future of Greater Yellowstone. There's also a 2019 study in Ecosphere that included Greater Yellowstone and examined the impact of backcountry recreation on wolverines. The impacts are there and scientists speculate it could get worse with climate change.
Graphic created by naturalist Bruce S. Thompson based on analysis of scientific data related to recreational displacement of wildlife
There is some good news here. In Greater Yellowstone, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Craighead Institute, the Center for Large Landscape Conservation and others, like Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, are gathering data about how humans are displacing wildlife.
TS: We were chatting the other day and you mentioned a Canadian study.
TW: Yes, a study based in British Columbia using 61 trail cameras and where there is a similar complement of wildlife, including grizzly bears and moose, as we have here. The authors of the study concluded that "deeper analysis of trail use captured by the cameras showed that all wildlife tended to avoid places that were recently visited by recreational users. And they avoided mountain bikers and motorized vehicles (ATVs) significantly more than they did hikers and horseback riders."
One reference point: A verbatim passage from a 2020 study in Canada titled "Relative effects of recreational activities on a temperate terrestrial wildlife assemblage."
TS: I see that look on your face. Tell me what you'd like to say.
TW: Only to mention that if the same kind of evidence, as exists for outdoor recreation impacts on wildlife, were instead applied to the impacts of proposed timber sales or mines or livestock grazing, I would bet that conservationists would use it to call upon federal agencies like the Forest Service or BLM to complete Environmental Impact Statements before allowing new trails or trail expansions or maybe even bring a lawsuit arguing that all of the impacts were not adequately assessed. The head of a regional conservation organization admitted that recreation use is outstripping the agencies' ability to mange it.
TS: But let me play Devil’s Advocate: couldn’t one argue that because of the economic activity, more human users equate to better conservation?
TW: That’s been the unquestioned assertion. But how does that work? I would ask you this question. How does promoting more recreationists going into an area that serves as a rare refuge for wildlife translate into better wildlife conservation outcomes for species living there? Think about it. I’m merely a journalist, but I hear the argument all the time that increasing human access to public lands results in better wildlife conservation. What’s essential to ask is for whom?
TS: What sets Greater Yellowstone apart?
TW: Greater Yellowstone still has exceptionally high wildlife values because the region has been geographically remote and hasn’t dealt with large numbers of people but that’s changing fast. We’re seeing lots of development on private lands in areas next to national forests and lots of recreationists going faster, farther and deeper into the backcountry. Wildness, one could argue, is shrinking.
TS: Sounds like a “double whammy,” but it gets worse doesn’t it?
TW: It was mentioned in a report from PERC and author Whitney Tilt last summer that recreation pressure on some public lands was causing elk to leave them and take up residence on farm and ranchland in the valleys below. But what happens when the ag land is subdivided? Where do the animals go then?
Elk winter on a private ranch in Paradise Valley where development pressure is growing. A recent report from PERC noted that recreation pressure on public lands sometimes displaces elk onto private land. Photo courtesy Brian Yablonski
TS: Still, the public conversation relating to conservation continues to revolve around access and economics.
TW: We often tell ourselves that a booming economy equals a healthy ecosystem. But in the context of Greater Yellowstone, does it? There is no example in the world where exurban sprawl and intense use levels of landscapes benefits wildlife. How does that work in the Wasatch astride of the Salt Lake metro, or the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies?
TS: Having been reading MoJo, this issue has certain been providing a lot of fodder.
TW: A question that I ponder, and try to explore in writing, is what’s the ecological cost of industrializing outdoor recreation—moving from what consider a quaint endeavor to things happening with lots of people? In many mountain towns there are already conflicts between recreationists and wildlife—including the dog companions of recreationists and wildlife. When we put a price on everything and try to monetize it, it results in consumption not preservation—at least how we’ve approached it to date.
TS: Give me an example.
TW: Well, we’ve been looking at the impact of exurban development in the Gallatin Valley on migrating elk. But let me give you another. Jackson Hole/Teton County, Wyoming is one of the richest, per capita, communities in the world, but development and huge numbers of human users are whittling away its world-class wildness and sense of place. They have water quality issues, lots of animals are getting killed trying to cross highways, and there are conflicts, for example, between backcountry skiers and a small remnant herd of bighorn sheep. The private lands of Jackson Hole are becoming a giant suburb and taking a huge toll on wildlife. Justin Farrell’s book Billionaire Wilderness explores part of this phenomenon in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
TS: Here’s another concern that has been evolving in my three-plus decades working as a conservation professional, and a flyfishing guide. We are not making any more wild lands and rivers; they are finite, closed systems; what’s there now is what there is. We can try to restore and heal areas that have been abused by resource extraction on public land but human development footprints seldom go away. You can reclaim a Forest Service logging road but when residential subdivisions line a river or block a migration pathway, it’s forever. I often think of the baseball player Yogi Berra who said “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” I wonder will it take wildland experiences becoming so unpleasant or onerous before land management agencies and society actually embrace limits on numbers of users?
TW: I share your concern and public land managers admit they are overwhelmed in dealing with growing recreation pressure. I predict that one day we’ll look back and ask why we didn’t act sooner. We accept limits on how we live every day in order to protect things that are fragile or represent a quality experience. There are quotas on the number of people who can float the Smith River in Montana or Grand Canyon. There are reservations at restaurants and great hotels. Parents want their kids to be in classes with smaller student to teacher ratios because it results in better quality learning. And, lest we forget, The Beatles could fill stadiums but they stopped playing them, stopped performing live, because the noise of so many screaming fans prevented them from being able to hear the sounds of their own singing voices.
TS: You and I have also spoken about the incalculable intrinsic worth of nature and what some call “existence value.” For some, it seems like even discussing it is a non-starter.
TW: The intrinsic existence value of things can be difficult to embrace for people who only measure the value of things in dollars and cents. When nature is only treated as a commodity, it becomes no different from a hardrock mine. You keep exploiting until you exhaust it. The argument that people need to use specific places in order to value them is absurd. You don’t have to travel to Africa and mountain bike across the Serengeti in order to support conservation of rhinos, lions, elephants and wildebeest migrations or hang-glide over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to order to back protection for polar bears and the Porcupine caribou herd. You and I both grew up fishing and hunting. Did we really have to kill something in order to reach the conclusion that animals are worth keeping alive or the solace derived by being on a quiet lake?
TS: Good point, and no, as we’ve discussed before, for many of us the experience of being afield is the important thing, more so than “taking” an animal. Our public lands are without question a national treasure and part of our common heritage and fortunately more Americans understand it’s part of their birthright. Like it or not, part of their “worth” is gauged by extractive value.
TW: Did you see Potter’s new cartoon this week?
TS: No, why don’t you share it. For sure, the extractive part of outdoor recreation presents unique challenges. Foremost is the fact that extractive use is disruptive on its face and often destructive. In most cases the products extracted are not regenerative. And we have seen enough “boom to bust” situations to know they are not an anomaly.
TS: On the other hand, guys like me have often traditionally understated or overlooked the inherent “extractive” nature of outdoor recreation. I’ll argue that outdoor recreation isn’t taking “products” off the land and that jobs tied to outdoor recreation are less likely to see a “boom or bust” situation. But there is unquestionably an impact and when it comes to wildlife, likely a disruptive one.
TW: I was raised on that utilitarian belief, too—that how could doing anything that’s fun, makes us happy and doesn’t hurt other people be “bad.” But it’s not about outdoor recreation being “bad,” it’s being willing to recognize our mere presence in sensitive places—and especially when our presence is expressed in the form of lots of people—results in wildlife abandoning it.
TS: Again, an example would be helpful.
TW: Maybe this is an analogy we humans can understand. How would any of us feel if people started walking through our backyards, making a racket, bumping into us, leaving behind trash, scarring our children and preventing us from getting a drink or going to the grocery store or restaurant to eat? That's kind of what's happening with wildlife. How long would we endure it until we pulled up stakes and moved?
TS: I get your point and would like to think most people would be mad as hell. But, and this proves your earlier points, I think we are seeing campgrounds and parking lots where that is not out of the ordinary.
TW: The point is not to demonize but to educate people that certain species do well in places where there are few people, no dogs and no roads or high-use trails running through them—what we would call wilderness. Sensitive animals tend not to do as well amid a constant thrum of human activity. So the question is, as recreationists, are we going to take it all and it doesn’t matter if the animals that define this region get rubbed out over time?
TS: You and I have discussed that it’s really about acknowledging what is exceedingly common (already having abundant opportunities to recreate) and comparing it to what is exceedingly rare (places where wildlife still thrive) and trying to protect the latter from becoming common. I get that.
TW: Transforming terrain into human territory seems to be in our DNA. We as a species feel compelled to colonize everything, to plant our flag on it, take selfies and share a location on social media, build rock cairns to show we were there. As I’ve mentioned in discussions with young college students who are interested in pursuing careers in conservation, it doesn’t take much imagination, creativity or brain power to propose building a new trail or road into wild country. But it takes character, empathy and self-restraint to say that in some places survival of animals that are rare in the world should get priority. There are lots of places our species can go to have fun; there are not a lot of places where the wildlife that still define Greater Yellowstone can live.
TS: I agree. Conservation in Greater Yellowstone doesn't have the same connotation if it doesn't have wildlife in front of it. I do believe that it comes down to protecting what is rare against it becoming "the same as everywhere else."
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