Early in my career as a freelance writer, before I became focused on the environment, I did things I look back upon now as having committed a sin.
To make money in order to pay the bills, I took some assignments writing what I would now call shameless travel stories.
A few of the pieces that appeared in print under my byline had headlines attached to them. While not literally these, they sounded like this: “Your Guide to Five Undiscovered Trails in Yellowstone” and “The Top Ten Fishing Rivers Where You Can Escape the Crowds,” and “Bozeman, Montana, Outdoor Mecca: A True American Diamond In the Rough.”
The notion of reflecting on their possible negative impact never crossed my mind. Members of the tourism industry seemed pleased and some companies called and thanked me for calling attention to them. What could possibly be wrong?
Although the stories were published long ago, they do not represent my proudest days as a journalist and I admit to feeling a sense of shame today. Looking back, i realize the five “undiscovered” trails I mentioned weren’t secrets any more and the fishing places I mentioned have, over the years, come under a lot more pressure from my stories and others that followed. The net effect was that I helped call attention to some really cool mostly untrammeled places that did not need touting or more people pouring into them. In fact, quite the opposite.
Today, with social media, especially in the wake of how we’ve seen trails and rivers coming under record inundation during Covid, it’s important to reflect upon how more information fed to the masses is contributing to the destruction of formerly-wild places.
As writers, what is our obligation and responsibility, if any, to protect the locations that figure in our storytelling? Whether setting is a main protagonist in a novel or backdrop for a travel or outdoor recreation story, I would argue that the ethic we adhere to ought to be comparable to the oath medical doctors take: “do no harm.” There’s a lot of analysis that already has been done about the negative impacts of travel journalism on sensitive archeological and cultural sites, in addition to how living breathing communities have been negatively transformed into tourist meccas where locals can no longer afford to live.
Shouldn’t there also be scrutiny applied to impacts of writing about wildlands? Should writers, say, penning pieces about trails in certain locations have some ecological understanding of the places they are writing about or at least grasp that bringing a lot more people into an area can cause harm to wildlife and other natural wonders? How much publicity is enough?
Up front, I admit that this makes me a hypocrite because I’ve already violated the rule I am now advancing. But isn’t that as it always happens? in my case, I’ve been chastened as I’ve become more aware of growing impacts and it’s impossible to unlearn what you know. If I could go back and erase my relatively small contribution to the problem, I would do that, too.
One aspect of this involves transformation of places and another is be cognizant of what makes them special.
Think of the old person who once was an ardent big game trophy hunter and who mentored generations into loving the great outdoors. Eventually, the person ages to the point where they stand in front of the elusive bull elk with epic antlers and decides not to pull the trigger. They understand that the animal is much more magical as a living being—that not taking its life helps to preserve the spirit of place.
The forerunning American ecologist Aldo Leopold famously reflected on his own youth, when he was part of predator eradication campaigns in the West and, as a Forest Service employee, he shot one of the last wild wolf mothers in a New Mexico mountain range.
He wrote: “In those days we had never heard of passing up the chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy. When our rifles were empty the old wolf was down and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide rocks.”
Yes, that’s an allusion that can be applied as much to travel and recreation writing and killing a place as to thoughtlessly taking down an animal and not really reflecting on personal motivation or consequences.
Know that I’m not judging hunters or travel writers because the decisions we make are personal and need to pass muster with our own consciences.
Many of us realize, when there’s more years accumulated behind us than ahead, that things are worth when remain elusive mysteries than becoming figurative heads mounted on our wall where we alone come to possess “the quarry” in death.
We’re well beyond the point of having to admit that the mantra of modern commercial society— that all growth in development and tourism are good—isn’t true, that growth is having severe consequences for fragile, finite aspects of nature and it includes the culpable role we play as writers, photographers and others in promoting industrial strength tourism. It’s happening everywhere. This is one of the confounding paradoxes involved with confronting the question of how do we stop loving places to death.
What I am wrestling with most these days, on a planet with 7.5 billion souls is how can we writers convert “users” into conscientious knowledgeable advocates for protecting nature? How do we do that by dispensing information as a force for good?
This is an issue I continue to struggle with in writing environmental stories, for example, about grizzly bears in Jackson Hole. I never write, in real time, about where bears are but even in writing about large areas they frequent or places they inhabit, I’ve raised the profile of places. This applies, of course, to nature photographers, too, especially with photographers who post pictures and enable viewers to get GPS coordinates tied to places.
On the one hand, places and species that have no avid advocates are more vulnerable to being exploited by forces that capitalize on their anonymity; on the other, when you elevate things and they gain a higher profile more people seek them out. I’m skeptical that, without regulations put in place to control numbers of people, that it’s almost impossible to achieve “balance.”
We’re well beyond the point of having to admit that the mantra of modern commercial society— that all growth in development and visitation are good—isn’t true, that growth is having severe consequences for fragile, finite aspects of nature and it includes the culpable role we play as writers, photographers and others in promoting industrial strength tourism. It’s happening everywhere. This is one of the confounding paradoxes involved with confronting the question of how do we stop loving places to death.
Humankind is consuming wildness at a rate faster than we’re holding the line protecting it. And, strangely, even with record visitation to national parks, motel rooms and campsites booked out months in advance, roads clogged with traffic, latrines overflowing, boat ramps, river stretches and trailheads packed, the tourism, outdoor recreation and real estate industries continue to spend millions of dollars promoting more visitation. Ironically, longtime locals, who love wild places more than visitors because they understand them more intimately, are now avoiding them because of crowds. Seldom do visitor satisfaction surveys conducted by the National Park Service or US Forest Service concentrate on the opinions of locals who have negative things to say, especially citizens versed in wildlife ecology.
Along with it, national newspapers and magazines deliberately target and highlight destinations that are unsung and they become industrialized with more publicity.
I’m certainly not saying don’t write about special places or take great photos of them nor am I suggesting we shouldn’t divulge how certain places have inspiring effect on us.
What I’m recommending is don’t write about the fragile ones. If you must, don’t identity them by name and don’t make it obvious what you are referencing.
In other words, be an advocate for them by not giving them away or selling them out.
We as writers, non-fiction journalists and inventors of fictional potboilers, hold a lot of power. So, too, photographers and filmmakers.
Before the days of the internet, before the notion of “going viral” on social media became a modern phenomenon and a desired objective, relying on word-of-mouth discovery brought slower transformations. Still, I experienced soul-crushing downsides of my own.
In 2015, the National Park Foundation in collaboration with the National Park Service launched a high-profile marketing and advertising campaign to promote the Centennial of the National Park Service in 2016. The campaign, which generated thousands of earned media articles, too resulted parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton notching record numbers of visits and igniting a trend that continues to this day. At the time, then-Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said the campaign only exacerbated problems, including resource violations, and he said that state and local tourism promotion campaigns, that encouraged even more people to come, made them worse. Screenshot of original image used in launch of Find Your Parks. Below: These (in red) were the figures for park visits to Yellowstone from 2000 to 2018 and include the sharp increase following the national campaign encouraging more Americans to visit parks in the build-up to the Park Service Centennial in 2016. Also note that the number of available Park Service workers in Yellowstone to handle the crowds (blue line) went down. in recent years, visits continued to rise and Park Service workers are being asked to do more with less. This year, a number of entities, including travel writers, are promoting the 150th anniversary of Yellowstone. Does the world’s first national park need more marketing?
One of the things I savor doing in the fall is hunting mountain grouse. “Blues,” as the birds are called, tend to inhabit ridgelines and finding them requires a lot of high steep hiking. I didn’t write about my favorite spots but I did take a friend there.
In this case, consider the friend a proxy for social media.
The place I’m referencing was truly extraordinary and out of the way. The reason for my adoration wasn’t just that it had a regular healthy population of grouse but I saw bears there, moose, herds of elk, mule deer and enjoyed other aspects of solitude. Often, I would climb up on an afternoon, set my shotgun aside and just sit there, soaking it in.
My friend and I had a couple of memorable outings together.
After he swore on the Bible that he wouldn’t tell anyone, I learned later that he, in fact, wanted to demonstrate to another acquaintance that he possessed good knowledge of the forest, and so he shared the whereabouts of the secret spot, along with the words: “I’m gonna take you to a place no one else knows about, that has a great population of grouse but you have to promise me you won’t tell anyone.” You can imagine how well the secret was kept.
A few years later, the grouse are largely gone, hunted out. Guys with bird dogs swarm it every year in the first few weeks of bird season and vacuum it of Blues. I offer this as a metaphor of what our writing can do. I’ve heard of places that have been written about—where there were undisturbed pictographs and petroglyphs that, after a story appeared, suffered from vandalism.
And I’ve heard longtime lovers of Yellowstone, Grand Teton and public lands in Greater Yellowstone complain about travel stories that have appeared recently in national newspapers.
For places that already being inundated and able to handle high volumes, it’s not as much an issue. Highlighting the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Upper Geyser Basin, the travertine terraces at Mammoth and the trail around Jenny Lake in Grand Teton is one thing because they have industrial strength infrastructures and will not crumble any more under the weight of added foot and car traffic. Some agency people reference them as “sacrifice zones.”
But calling attention to little known natural hot pots and identifying how to get there in a travel story or guide book will not benefit them or result in better stewardship. Many such spots that have narrow or poorly marked dirt pathways today will have wider ones tomorrow and paved ones with signage in the future. You know places that already have undergone the transformation.
Social media most advantages the unimaginative, the lazy and the ecologically uninformed who, with a little bit of inside dope, can unknowingly wreak havoc. This includes ecologically-ilitterate writers who recycle the material of other writers who revealed secrets and then waves of blogs with photos containing GPS coordinates are blasted around the world. Writers ethically ought to at least consider cause and effect. Yes, it’s possible to create treasure maps without pinpointing where “X” marks the spots.
But what it really comes down to, if there is to be any hope that the character of wild places can endure and persevere, is having the gatekeepers who oversee access to such places taking on more responsibility. National parks and national forests, the overseers of national monuments like the BLM and even state parks, must stop treating the topic of limits as taboo. We need to have a broader discussion about human carrying capacity as it relates to sustaining nature, not just economies.
Wildlands seem to be the final frontier in modern American life where intelligent discussions about limits are happening. Meanwhile, the essence of so many experiences we humans value in life are, by necessity, safeguarded again human overuse by various kinds of rationing. It involves seating capacity in buildings and at concerts, trying to keep student to teacher ratios lower in schools because it results in better learning, the number of hunting licenses issued for certain areas, and number of floaters allowed on rivers.
All of this can be managed in ways that do not penalize people who have felt historically excluded, but addressing limits on overall numbers needs to happen. Travel and recreation writers ought to help carry the conversation forward.
Other parts in Mountain Journal’s ongoing “Enough” series: