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It's Time For Outdoor Recreationists To Not Just Be Takers

In this thought-provoking piece, Lesli Allison, head of the Western Landowners Alliance, says people who play need to realize wildlife conservation and recreation are not the same

The summer throngs descend upon Boiling River in Yellowstone. The geothermal soaking site swells with visitors in summer. And, it just happens to reside within a wildlife migration corridor used by elk, bison, mule deer and bighorn sheep.  Everybody wants to have fun and soaking at Boiling River is an exotic experience. Having fun is good for our physical and mental health. But the mere act of being an outdoor recreationist does not make one a conservationist.  Photo courtesy Jim Peaco/NPS
The summer throngs descend upon Boiling River in Yellowstone. The geothermal soaking site swells with visitors in summer. And, it just happens to reside within a wildlife migration corridor used by elk, bison, mule deer and bighorn sheep. Everybody wants to have fun and soaking at Boiling River is an exotic experience. Having fun is good for our physical and mental health. But the mere act of being an outdoor recreationist does not make one a conservationist. Photo courtesy Jim Peaco/NPS

By Lesli Allison

As a child, I used to sit on lazy summer afternoons by a little pond on national forest land near my family’s home. Save for the buzzing of an occasional bee or fly, the wind in the treetops and the sound of birds, it was pretty quiet. Today, it is like an interstate highway.

Few minutes ever pass without an ATV, SUV or pickup motoring past on the small dirt road. The dust seldom has a chance to settle.

In this same place, there was a little creek running several miles along the bottom of a steep canyon. In the heat of summer, it is one of the few water sources in the area. For more than two miles from the mouth of the canyon on a hot summer day, campers are packed in along the entire length of the stream. It used to be that each day we would see turkeys, deer and other wildlife coming down to the stream in the early evenings, or heading up away from it in the early mornings, but that is impossible for wildlife now.

Most of us already know what studies now show: getting outdoors is good for us. It’s also good for business. Outdoor recreation today supports a thriving industry, generating $887 billion per each in the US. Even state governments are getting in the game by opening offices of outdoor recreation and stepping up eco-tourism investments. 

Between the health benefits, recreational pleasure and economics of outdoor recreation, pressure is on to open more and more places to public access.

The recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act hopefully will help us better maintain the vast public estate already at our disposal. We have cause to celebrate this bipartisan recognition that we have to do a better job of caring for the places we love. 

Too often throughout human history we’ve repeated a pattern; use up one place or resource and move on to the next. This public investment, however, does not obviate the need for greater personal responsibility or the fact that outdoor recreation is fast becoming another form of consumerism generating industrial scale impacts on our environment and on wildlife.

We are wiping out the last refugia left for wildlife, yet there is no talk of limits to human recreation, only talk of expansion. Even the “Leave No Trace” messaging campaigns of old have been trampled under the stamped for more and more public access.
We are wiping out the last refugia left for wildlife, yet there is no talk of limits to human recreation, only talk of expansion. Even the “Leave No Trace” messaging campaigns of old have been trampled under the stamped for more and more public access.
As much as we’d like to think we all take care of the places we have, a frank look at our public lands, where we frequently see trash, human waste, abandoned campfires, illegal shooting ranges and ATV ruts, particularly in high use areas, says otherwise. 

The fact that taxpayers are stepping up to address the maintenance backlog in national parks through this new legislation does not give us license to abuse or overwhelm our resources. Then there is food security and human health. Covid-19 revealed the weaknesses in our food system.
A small band of elk, among several thousand, crosses private ranches in the Madison Valley of southwest Montana where they winter.  Providing habitat for public wildlife is one of several tangible ways ranchers give back and promote wildlife conservation. Ask yourself: how do outdoor recreationists help promote wildlife protection?  How does our presence in landscapes important to rare wildlife improve the prospects of wildlife conservation for those species? Or, maybe, it doesn't? Photo courtesy Roger Lang
A small band of elk, among several thousand, crosses private ranches in the Madison Valley of southwest Montana where they winter. Providing habitat for public wildlife is one of several tangible ways ranchers give back and promote wildlife conservation. Ask yourself: how do outdoor recreationists help promote wildlife protection? How does our presence in landscapes important to rare wildlife improve the prospects of wildlife conservation for those species? Or, maybe, it doesn't? Photo courtesy Roger Lang
When grocery shelves went empty, many people turned to local farms and ranches. Yet family agriculture is on hard times, and disappearing. Pressure is increasing on those that remain to supply food, fiber, energy, wildlife habitat, environmental conditions that support human health, and now recreation.

In many cases, commodity production alone is not enough to meet the bottom line while supporting all of these other values. Ranching is increasingly reliant on a diversified revenue model that includes livestock grazing, ecotourism and conservation.

Mounting demands for free public access to and across these ranches directly threaten their ability to stay in business. The majority of wildlife in this country depend on private lands for survival, but if these private lands are not economically viable, they’ll continue to disappear, taking the wildlife with them.
Mounting demands for free public access to and across these ranches directly threaten their ability to stay in business. The majority of wildlife in this country depend on private lands for survival, but if these private lands are not economically viable, they’ll continue to disappear, taking the wildlife with them.
We have to recognize that conservation and recreation are not one and the same. The question needs to be asked: what are recreationists personally giving back relative to the impacts we are generating? 

The concept of regenerative agriculture calls attention to the fact that our relationship with the land needs to be reciprocal. We need to give back to and revitalize the land that provides our sustenance. Maybe it is time also to start thinking about regenerative recreation?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This essay by Lesli Allison appeared in the premiere issue of  On Land, the new magazine published by the Western Landowners Alliance, where Allison serves as executive director. Her piece is reprinted with permission. 




Lesli Allison
About Lesli Allison

Lesli Allison is the executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance (WLA), a landowner-led network dedicated to the health and prosperity of the American West by working to advance policies and practices that sustain working lands, connected landscapes and native species. WLA members steward approximately 14 million acres of deeded and leased public land in the American West. Through policy reform and on-the-ground stewardship, they are working to protect land and wildlife, restore watershed health, maintain wildlife corridors, promote economically vibrant rural communities, and to keep working lands viable.
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