Since the start of COVID-19, unprecedented numbers of people have been going outside into nature as an alternative to crowded cities. Here in Western Washington, there has been a 30% increase in outdoor recreation in the past decade. Impacts of this rise in use can be felt across all aspects of local ecology- from hiking trails to ATV parks, the environment has taken a beating from people trying to get outside, and often having no clue how to do so in a mindful and light footed way. One area of the population trying to implement studies to show the detrimental impacts of human access into wilderness is The Tulalip Tribe. Their study- The “Recreation Boom” on Public Lands in Western Washington: Impacts to Wildlife and Implications for Treaty Tribes is an eye opener for anyone curious about the effect human recreation has on the nature we love and enjoy. It’s a classic case of misuse and abuse which stems from ignorance. People seem to think wilderness is theirs for the taking- no surprise, and even the outdoor enthusiasts who label themselves environmentally friendly, are often doing the most harm in their pursuits.
To be clear- we should all be getting outside and putting eyes on the environment, immersing ourselves in it, and forming deep connection. But the way in which people often try to embrace nature, without an understanding of personal impact, does the most harm. It seems to be a sort of damned if we do, damned if we don’t situation. Restricting access to nature cuts people off from forming connection with it, thus removing conservation mindfulness all together. If we are not out there being a part of the natural world, it makes it easier to forget it, inviting industry to come and extract from it instead. Getting outside for nature connection is also a privilege many people cannot afford due to a lack of finances, transportation, gear, or how to. It is this last one, the how to, which is causing the greatest conflict with retaining a healthy balance between nature and man.
My partner and I have been doing a lot of overnight camping this summer and keep running into two major issues on the trail- used toilet paper on the open ground (often near a wild water source) and trash in established fire pits. These are two very large issues because they cause the eventual shut down of public access to wilderness space, pollute water sources and soil, and demonstrate a severe lack of understanding or care of wild spaces. It was especially frustrating at our established camp site in a recent overnight, where a vault toilet was installed for latrine use, that even with proper signage and flagging to show where the toilet was, there was still rampant pop a squat anywhere evidence- people didn’t understand that there was a toilet nearby- they just saw a sign that said “toilet” and walked over to do their business on the open ground. Never mind “leave no trace”- there is a complete loss of outdoor ethics as more an more inexperienced people venture out into nature. It was very apparent at every campsite we stayed at.
Along with discarded refuse, the erosion of the trails themselves was prevalent. This overuse struggle is happening all over the world. Here’s one article about east coast trails and the traffic on them. The time-laps video of a day on the trail was most revealing. In our eagerness to find nature, we’re loosing it, and the lack of leave no trace ethics in combination with a mindset that believes nature is something to exploit, rather than respect will ultimately destroy out wilderness and make it impossible to enjoy. This telling toll through recreation accesses reflects a much more systemic problem at play in our world- overpopulation. Rather than sit here griping about the world’s crowding out, I’d like to reflect again on the way people treat the natural world. When we go out into wilderness, there are very important ethics in out treatment of the environment, which dictates if that environment will remain wild and thriving for us to return to again and again. We have to understand how much devistation our visitation renders, and often, acknowledge that our impact might not be the best thing for a place, no matter how beautiful and wild it might be to enjoy.