DeFrates column: Educate, don’t exclude people from our outdoor treasures
In the age of competitive online permitting systems and limited-use restrictions, digital expertise is, bizarrely, becoming an essential outdoor skill.
While recovering from the 12-hour flu on Saturday night, I was participating in one of my daily rituals: refreshing Recreation.gov to see if any permits were available for a few of my favorite multi-day river stretches. I saw a single date become available, but had to let it go. The permit was almost immediately captured by someone else who loves the rivers, knows the system, and has the time to spend staring at a screen.
Just yesterday, my sister went through the same routine to snag a camping spot in Zion National Park. All gone within 15 minutes. Hikers to Conundrum Hot Springs now also participate in this gunslinger version of “How Fast is Your WiFi” three times a year when permits to hike that trail open up. Within an hour, every hiking day during the summer and fall high-use seasons is taken — although, this year, good luck with the avalanche debris.
We all know about the crowds, the trash, the dog poop, the human poop and the wedding decorations left behind. Every resident has a story about some place they used to go to get away from it all, which is now playing host to thousands of people a season — Red Hill, Thompson Divide, Hanging Lake, Conundrum Hot Springs, Smuggler Mountain, Rifle Gap, and the list goes on.
As the quickest and most affordable solution to this visitation “problem,” online reservation systems are popping up all over the country, many in our own backyard.
Online permits seem like a simple solution to a scary problem. But what are the side effects of adding yet another “gate” to accessing popular outdoor places? It means that, quite often, an already elite population is narrowed down yet again.
For individuals who don’t come from a background of outdoor exploration, but who want to get outside, hike or camp more, there are already many obstacles. First is the cost of gear and transportation. Next, the time — you can’t go if you’re working three jobs. Then there’s the mentorship/education hurdle.
It’s easy to learn to camp from your parents, but if no one has told you that it’s safe to be outside below 40 degrees (I swear you won’t get pneumonia!), then it is harder to break through the perceived “dangers” of outdoor exploring, even if you want to.
One response is, of course, find somewhere that isn’t permitted! And yes, that is a great solution for all of us who already know where to look. There are many beautiful hikes and campgrounds which do not require permits. But those are, by definition, off the beaten path.
Take Hanging Lake for example.
It was so overrun because it is just so darn convenient. People driving from here to there saw the exit, or noticed it on their social media feeds, and made the stop. For many visitors, Hanging Lake was their first Rocky Mountain hiking experience. While local search and rescue may have lamented this fact from time to time, for those hikers, it may well have been a life-changing experience.
Now, for better or worse, instead of a spur-of-the-moment decision to get your family outside and off their screens, people need access to a computer, reliable and constant wifi, the time to wait for the permits to open, have the money (almost $50 for a family of four!) and the ability to plan more than a week into the future.
We just ruled out a huge percentage in the population. To any readers who are thinking, “Well, yeah, of course,” what you’re really thinking is that you deserve it and those other people don’t.
With more studies showing the powerful benefits of time spent in nature — reduction of heart disease, depression, obesity and other costly chronic illnesses — it should be in everyone’s best interests to open the doors to an even wider group.
Yet we can’t overlook the negative impact that this kind of heavy use has on the precious and delicate natural areas we love so much. While I don’t have all the answers right now, I’d like to suggest a paradigm shift.
What if we need to start thinking of permit systems as more of a stop-gap solution — protecting those areas from damage immediately, but not the ideal long-term answer?
The real problem is a lack of understanding or empathy for natural environments, and human impact thereon. This means that a better solution is actually — and anyone who reads my column regularly knows what’s coming next — more education.
Local schools and nonprofits in our valley are working very hard to make responsible land stewardship synonymous with recreation and P.E., which will do much to raise a generation of responsible adults locally.
What about all our visitors and tourists, though? This is where we need to innovate. Local businesses and influencers carry a great burden in this area. Sharing and promoting Leave No Trace practices is the first step, and speaking up even when it’s awkward is important.
What if hotels offered informational brochures about Leave No Trace in a prominent position on the night stand? How about RFTA stepping up for more free ad space in their buses to inform visitors?
I don’t have all the answers, but I believe strongly that the goal should never be to narrow the gate. Rather, it should be to educate those who pass through.
Lindsay DeFrates is a freelance writer living in Glenwood Springs. She can be reached at http://www.roaringforkwriter.com.
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