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The Future of Wilderness Under Trump: Recreation or Wreckreation?

Many wilderness advocates, scientists, and public land experts and professionals have recognized, for decades now, the growing problem of too much recreation use in Wilderness. Howard Zahniser, the Wilderness Act’s author, recognized the purpose of the Wilderness Act is to protect Wilderness, not establish any particular use. As far back as 1956 he warned the threat “from development for recreation,” which applies to overbuilt trails, unnecessary bridges, and other “improvements” made in Wilderness in response to demands from recreationalists. Thus, he emphasized the need for restraint in our dealing with Wilderness.

The 1978 edition of Wilderness Management, the definitive professional work on managing recreation and other human uses in Wilderness, summed it up, “There is a real danger of loving wilderness to death.” Too many visitors trample vegetation, compact soils, displace wildlife, destroy solitude, and degrade recreational experiences of those same visitors.

This is truer today than it ever was, in part due to pressures from a much larger population, but also due to our inability and unwillingness to practice restraint when, in this case, it interferes with our desired recreational activity.

Case in point, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is considering allowing a 400 percent increase in daily visitors to visit the Wave, a small, fragile, and unique rock formation in the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, a remote place straddling the Arizona/Utah border. Due to the internet and other marketing, including marketing by BLM, that agency now claims the, “increase in public demand dramatically underscores the need to consider increasing visitor access” to this part of the Wilderness. Really?

The law requires BLM to preserve Wilderness, yet the agency is promoting excessive use that degrades it. Nearly a quarter of a million people wanted to visit that area in 2018! Does BLM seriously expect Wilderness can be preserved by allowing 96 people per day at one small feature, let alone nearly 1,000 to meet the desires of all who supposedly want to go there? What ever happened to loving wilderness to death as a management concern?

Since the Wilderness Act passed, expressing worry “that an increasing population” could overwhelm all wildlands, hence the need for the Wilderness Act, the US population has grown by 137,000,000.  The authors of the Act were rightly concerned about future population growth—size and numbers matter when considering impacts to wild places and wildlife.

Wildlife too, is harmed by the lack of restraint in recreational use and numbers, and it is not just from motorized users. Recent research suggests all trail recreation displaces wildlife. One study found the sound of human voices alone, including recordings, cause wildlife to flee, stop eating, or become nervous. That study found, “Humans have supplanted large carnivores as apex predators in many systems, and similarly pervasive impacts may now result from fear of the human ‘super predator.’” Mountain lions fear our voices, even our soft voices. In another example, an elk herd in and around Vail, Colorado decreased from 1,000 to only around 50 mostly due to biking in the summer and backcountry skiing in the winter. That herd could easily disappear because of excessive recreation use.

In spite of recreational use levels that have exponentially increased on public lands, including Wilderness, since the early 1970s, there has been extensive hand-wringing by agency bureaucrats, politicians of both parties, and especially representatives of the recreation industry proclaiming a dire future for public lands due to supposed declines in outdoor recreation. Of course their answer is antithetical to the preservation of Wilderness and other wild places—more marketing, commodifying, commercial outfitting, fees, and access, all with little or no regard to impacts. Wilderness isn’t being spared.

Recent bi-partisan legislation to boost outfitting (and user fees) on public land—going by the innocuous names of the “Recreation Not Red Tape Act” or “Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act”—suggests a recreation industry-controlled future of ever increasing numbers and commodification of recreation on public land, for which we all shall be charged and for which wildness, wildlife and Wilderness will all suffer greatly. Say goodbye to the outstanding opportunities for solitude.

A 400 percent increase in use, as BLM proposes in the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, is not good for the Wilderness, bighorn sheep in the area, or even the visitors who will have a degraded wilderness experience.  For Wilderness and life forms dependent on wild country to survive, we need humility and restraint in our wildland recreation. Indeed, those same qualities will be needed if we are to survive at all.

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