Last week Lou Dawson of Wildsnow, who like most is best when he lets himself off the leash, wrote a worthwhile piece about the future recreation and those interested in it might play in shaping how public lands are governed in the United States. It’s not useful for me to summarize the many salient points raised in both the article and some of the comments, you can do that for yourself. What I will say is that Dawson’s hidden thesis seems to be that those whose primary interest in wild places is human powered recreation are in the position to chart a course between the existing poles of Wilderness preservation and mechanized recreation/ resource extraction.
The problem with this issue is that while few if any actual humans exist solely on one extreme or the other, the policy debate has encouraged rhetorical and positional absolutism. Most of these people would, if only in a dark room, concede that human presence in wilderness has benefits, and that some controls on that impact must be in order to preserve these experiences for future generations.
One of Dawson’s key points is that human experience and the passion it engenders will be essential for keeping wilderness (and Wilderness) valued. I made a similar argument last month in my plan for Glacier National Park, arguing that the educational mission of the park should be explicitly focused on getting more people into the backcountry. The crucial turn in my argument was that getting people out of their cars had to happen first, something on which Dawson is silent.
The balance here will be turning headless outdoor hedonism into more purposive conduct worthy of citizenship. In other words, giving recreation a moral element. It doesn’t seem to be too far a stretch to think that outdoor recreation would be a reliable way of inculcating this, after all everyone from hikers to climbers to hunters talks in such terms.
The question is how.
The access question which features prominently in Dawson’s argument is a good place to start. I’m a firm believer that wild places should be subject to equality of opportunity, not equality by instant gratification. We need big, aspirational wilderness and we need more of it. We also need more areas which are a bit less intimidating, places to get the feet wet and build experience and skills. As mentioned above, under certain circumstances I think the NPS is an excellent candidate to facilitate the later. Because of their brand-name status their main corridors of travel are already subject to substantial use, shifting focus on resources to intensive non-motorized use would be a relatively easy transition. Those people unwilling to experience great scenery on their own feet or via public transit do not get to see it, through only their own fault. Recreation can only be a moral force if it remains sustainable, which means overwhelmingly human powered, and shrinking the current footprint of motorized use.