Time for the Access vs. Conservation Debate

Beartooth Range, Montana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

You’d be hard pressed to find many — or any — Montanans who think stuffing ever more people into their favorite campsites, hunting spots or fishing holes is beneficial to the experience or the resource. Yet, many former “conservation” organizations seem to ignore that reality as they actively promote “access” by ever more people without due consideration to the growing degradation of the resources they once espoused.

It’s not hard to find examples of abuse created by the endless marketing of our state’s stunning natural environment. A backpack trip into a lake in the Beartooth Wilderness comes to mind. When we got to the lake, there was a cheap tent, crushed by the wind and left behind as garbage by thoughtless “campers.”

Even worse, they also left the junk food they’d packed in — Cheetos, candy bar wrappers and cookies — perhaps thinking the bears would clean up after them. But no, we packed out their trashed tent and garbage to prevent a bear from finding junk food in a wilderness campsite.

Then there was the 6-mile backpack into a high mountain lake in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness which is, unfortunately, situated a little too close to Big Sky and its clueless hordes. There we found more than 100 feet of rope and a paddle left behind.

Apparently the nimrods thought they were going to build a raft on a lake so small you could walk around the entire perimeter in 20 minutes. But when they got there they found out you can’t build a raft out of the tough, stunted high-elevation scrub pines. So they tossed their garbage and we had to pack that out, too.

Two decades ago during one of the state’s endless discussions on how to handle overcrowding on the Madison River, the head of the Floating and Fishing Outfitters of Montana exclaimed: “there’s no such thing as carrying capacity on our rivers.” Then he refused to even consider any limits on how many people could be stuffed on the river before the resource and experience was degraded.

Today, the problem has now spread to the overcrowding on nearly all of Montana’s major rivers. And while in “the old days” good river ethics meant staying out of sight of the next angler, nowadays that admirable ethic has fallen by the wayside. And the wayside is littered with bird-killing hooks, monofilament, bait containers, and cheap beer and energy drink cans.

What’s puzzling is why the increasing impacts from growing crowds of people, many completely unfamiliar with the natural world, aren’t more of a concern to these “conservation” organizations.

Take Wild Montana, for instance. Formerly the Montana Wilderness Association, the “rebranded” organization now acts like a tourism promoter, aggressively marketing ever more backcountry use through its “Trail of the Week” ad campaign.

Ironically, many of the ads directing everyone and anyone to high mountain meadows, lakes and peaks end with the same claim: “You’ll have the place all to yourself.” Only you can bet thanks to Wild Montana’s promotions, the chances of finding wilderness solitude grow less likely thanks to their promotional ads.

The idea that the more people use a resource the better they’ll take care of it is a baseless delusion. Although it’s far easier for these organizations to sell “access” than advocate for conservation, in the end, it’s the resource that suffers from overuse and abuse.

Make no mistake, there are very real limits and “carrying capacities” for our campgrounds, rivers and backcountry areas. As the degradation by thoughtless, self-centered humans and the organizations that promote ever more use mounts one thing is clear — we can no longer ignore the “access vs. conservation” debate.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.