When it comes to thinking about ecological impacts, few have influenced more people than Dr. Reed Noss.
Nothing can change a place or diminish the character of everything around it faster than a road, he says. It’s easy to punch a road into wild country. It’s harder to predict the unintended negative consequences. It’s extremely difficult to undo serious damage.
Noss and I were chatting this week about the new burning hot potato of wildland conservation: Pushes to expand more recreation trails across public lands. Trails can have the same kinds of impacts roads do, Noss says, but routinely missing is a thoughtful discussion of what’s being lost in exchange for more access.
By “lost” he means the displacement and potential elimination of sensitive mammals and birds from the landscape. Or the very ambiance that attracted people there in the first place.
Another loss Noss has witnessed is an erosion of human understanding of nature — a dumbing down — and it’s happening amid a philosophical shift few want to talk about.
Noss, an acclaimed ecologist, is a prominent figure globally in conservation biology. He’s no elitist. He is, in fact, a hardcore champion of encouraging Americans to get out in the woods, to “re-create” themselves. He argues contact with nature is an essential seed for growing new generations of conscientious citizens willing to conserve the shrinking wildness that remains.
Noss is deeply troubled, however, by the societal shift away from wild country serving as a way to engage in slow, quiet, mindful reflection that, in turn, gives rise to greater appreciation about the species that find refuge there and have nowhere else to go.
Instead, wild places often are treated as outdoor gymnasiums whose highest touted value is delivering rushes of adrenaline.
Noss and scores of other big picture thinkers have seen little evidence supporting the contention advanced by some outdoor recreationists — and the powerful lobby of outdoor gear manufacturers standing behind them — that blazing more trails has yielded a stronger, more effective conservation movement.
Recreation lobbyists are good at getting young people to demand more trails but seldom has it resulted in them turning out en masse to reliably defend the integrity of existing wild places, or use their voices to halt efforts by resource extractionists to weaken environmental laws or hold anti-environmental lawmakers accountable at the ballot box.
Noss suspects that in the Yellowstone area many young recreationists don’t understand how special and uncommon wildlife populations here are, or how fragile.
“There is definitely some unknown proportion of recreationists who would, if better educated about their own impacts, be willing to modify their behavior,” Noss said. “But there will always be the highly vocal few self-serving bastards who just want to get a workout and don’t give a rip about what effect their activity is having on sensitive species.”
The challenge, and it’s something Noss has seen as a college professor, is many Millennials and Generation Y-ers lack a basic understanding of natural history and the habitat needs of species.
“The vast majority of young recreationists in greater Yellowstone, I would guess, just aren’t aware. They don’t read the scientific literature on the impacts of outdoor recreation and no one is bringing it to their attention, so they don’t have a clue,” he said.
“I would think the federal land management agencies probably realize they have an obligation as stewards to develop an ongoing education campaign, but we can’t really rely upon them because they don’t do it.”
Unfortunately, traditional environmental organizations also are missing in action on calling attention to outdoor recreation impacts. In many cases the groups are staffed by outdoor recreationists hesitant to say anything that might alienate them from their social peer groups or deep-pocketed funders.
Noss cited numerous scientific studies and emerging data confirming the impacts of recreation on wildlife.
“Don’t Poach the Powder,” an initiative of the Jackson Hole Conservation alliance, is a rare example of local environmental organizations imploring recreationists to exercise self restraint. The alliance wants skiers to realize their zeal for copping untracked powder off-piste in parts of the Tetons can have serious consequences for bighorn sheep.
It may not even occur to some backcountry shredders that just a few exhilarating runs pursued in the name of innocent fun could mean the end for skittish bighorns just struggling to survive.