Are sports such as backpacking and ski touring “green,” or do they damage the land?
Thirty years ago that question would have elicited astonished laughter from nearly any backpacker or climber. Back in the day, if you were muscle powered you considered yourself a verdant saint — the damage was done by those evil motorized users. That attitude is still common, but another view has grown common. A view that should alarm anyone who values backcountry recreation and a land ethic, motorized or human muscle powered.
There are now former climbers, backpackers and ski mountaineers who view most outdoor recreation, including the muscle propelled side, as hazardous to our planet’s health. They claim such recreation is a selfish “extractive” pursuit akin to mining, and should be heavily restricted and regulated — even ended in some areas. The goal, they say, is to restore the majority of our North American backcountry land to an ecology resembling that before European settlement.
Let’s get one thing straight: all recreation is extractive.
Whatever our attitude, method, or motivation, we still ask something of the land. Motorized vehicles may cause erosion, but so do Colorado fourteener climbers stomping their web of eroded trails. Conversely, a jeep rolling on an existing road, or a careful hiker on an established trail, are both gentle.
So, let’s scrap the “motorized and “muscle” labels. Together, let’s ask one set of questions: What is good about outdoor recreation? Why not just give up this “selfish extractive” activity?
Play is a documented behavior of most mammals, of birds, and perhaps of other life forms as well. Ever caught the glimmer in your dog’s eye when you drop what you’re doing for a game of catch? Ever seen a cat play with a mouse (grim, yes, but true)? Who can deny that human outdoor play, whether it be a snowball fight or Everest climb, is not something special, valuable, and unique? And more, something that contributes to the general well-being of our society?
Indeed, to the civilization bound environmentalist who says “…knowing the wilderness is there, that’s all I need,” I say, “fine for you. And fine for the land (if everyone went to the wilderness it would cease to be). But, it is essential for humanity that a few people go to the backcountry and play.”
We need to go where we came from, see nature in joy and participation — and know good can come through natural things rather than larger houses, polished auto paint and nihilistic sitcoms.
Furthermore, outdoor recreation has a peerless spiritual component. Perhaps you believe the world is God created, or that nature is God. With either worldview, when you engage the natural world you gain revelation. As everyone from deep ecologists to born-again Christians testify, such revelation can be profound and life changing. Without such revelation, environmentalism will become a selfish exercise that will fail. It will become a shallow codex based on preserving the land so we or our children can get something from it in the future. And perhaps of greater concern, if based on selfishness, environmentalism will be co-opted as a power base.
A good example of selfish greenism is the recent effort of certain alpine ski resorts to paint themselves as “green.” While perhaps well intentioned by some individuals, this ludicrous exercise is nothing less than corporate pandering. Ski resorts, as they burn thousands of gallons of diesel fuel (see notes), suck electricity, and take wildlife habitat, are about as far from being green as the exhaust pipe on my Chevy truck. Sure, I like ski resorts, and I think they are a good example of extractive recreation that’s valuable enough to keep. And certainly the ski industry should be run with as much environmental care as possible. Yet paint ski resorts “green” and we might as well buy stock in a strip mine (least we forget, if it wasn’t for mining we wouldn’t have the materials for those convenient ski lifts.)
To counter the cursed future of selfish motives, revelation is the basis for selfless appreciation of nature and a spiritual land ethic. What is more, the “nature” revealed in nature leads our mind and spirit to a deeper understanding of the universe.
And least we forget: There would be no modern environmental ethic if gurus of the environmental movement, such as Thoreau, Leopold and Brower, had not reveled in the natural world.
Thus, if we are to appreciate and then preserve the wild, a steady stream of individuals must go out and experience nature. Some will play selfishly and must be carefully watched. Others will come back with humble, respectful insight. They will appreciate the wild, know deep truth, and support a land ethic based on participation rather than exclusion.
It is ironic. Outdoor recreation is important enough to warrant some extraction, a modicum of damage, and even choosing which mix of species is appropriate and sustainable.
For example, should we fill the woods of Colorado with dangerous grizzly bears just because they were once here?
Certainly we can not have outdoor recreation eliminate its own reason by destroying our nest. Yet heavily restricting recreation in order to realize visions of a theoretical pre-settlement eden is a questionable tact.
Any scientist can tell you that ecology is not a constant, but rather an ever-changing milieu. Even native Americans lived in a land influenced by their own presence — not an eden of primal purity as many would have us believe. Indeed, anthropology shows that primitive humans may have caused animal extinctions and almost certainly caused extirpations, and their thousands of different tribes had a wide variation in behavior (not one unified earthy religion and culture as some wide-eyed pundits like to fantasize).
An environmentalist friend of mine says motorized recreation is worse than muscle powered because it’s a question of “how close are you going to dance with the devil?” My answer is, first, leave the devil out of it; recreation is not evil. Second, what are your dance steps and how often do you stumble? Recreation ethics is about attitude — not equipment. It’s not the tools you dance with, but what style of dance you choose. And the dance is important.
(Note: An inside source at the Aspen Ski Company told me that at only one of their ski areas, Snowmass, they burn more than 120,000 gallons of diesel fuel every winter! Then there is the electricity for the lifts, water for snowmaking, etc. Sure, they use some biodiesel, but that still makes just as much carbon dioxide, and they use some wind power. But “green” by any definition? Not a chance.)
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.