Things were getting tense in the gondola. I’d just been hired as a ski instructor and it was training day. In the bucket with me were a fellow trainee and a polite young Wyoming cowboy, our veteran instructor trainer for the day. My fellow trainee was also a fiery tree hugger. It was the late ’80s and the northwest timber wars sparked by the endangered spotted owl were at a fevered pitch.
We tree huggers were on a good rant when the polite Wyoming ranch boy spoke up, suggesting we were blindered hypocrites for ignoring the permanent vertical strip clear cuts all around us. Fuse lit, we launched into a heated argument about which was a more sustainable use of public lands, resource extraction or recreation. His point seemed ludicrous, that somehow the timber industry’s raping and pillaging across vast landscapes was more sustainable than our oh-so-light-on-the-land recreational uses. We smugly walked away from the conversation confident that we crushed our challenger.
Fast forward 30 years. I’d like to apologize to that nice cowboy. If they haven’t already, those trees will grow back eventually, and some habitat value will be restored. On the other hand, there ain’t no way that Spar Gulch or Dallas Freeway are going to hold trees ever again. The point is while large-scale old-growth timber harvesting is certainly ecologically destructive, recreation shouldn’t get a pass as squeaky clean. Yes, a clearcut or well pad is devastating in the short to medium term. Yet, they do grow back, and their habitat values increasingly restores as time goes by. On the other hand, recreation is a permanent occupier and the demand curve seems to only go one way, steeply up.
Before you burn me as a heretic, hear me out.
The demand for more trails, particularly by the mountain bike community, seems insatiable. And how often have you ever seen a (legal) trail abandoned and ecologically restored? Since that well-meaning but misguided argument with that polite cowboy, I’ve seen trail systems metastasize across public lands.
I don’t pick on the mountain bike community out of animus. They’re just an easy target because that’s where most of the trail expansion pressure is coming from these days. I’m a mountain biker and, living at the foot of the Prince Creek/Crown trail system, I am definitely a beneficiary of the aggressive trail development ethos. But at what cost? The science is clear that recreational trails of all types impact habitat. A Google search on environmental impacts of recreational trails produced 23 million hits.
Fundamentally, trails and their use disturb and displace wildlife. There’s a threshold at which recreational use intensity so alters habitat that it’s abandoned. But they can just go over the hill to some other habitat, right? Nope. They chose the habitat they were displaced from because it provided something they needed; food, water, shelter or secure refuge. Over the hill wasn’t selected because it was less desirable. And, I’ve seen RFMBA’s grand plan. There’s hardly an empty space on the map not targeted for a new trail.
Again, I’m not saying that multinational corporations liquidating our natural resources and shipping old growth forests to be sunk in Tokyo Harbor is better than mountain bike trails. It’s not … nor is it a binary, either-or choice. It’s that we can’t bury our heads in the sand because we pedal a bike rather than operate a feller buncher.
What we do need to do is have a far-sighted, thoughtful conversation about limits; about who we are and what we value.
Unlimited demand for new trails on a finite landscape will have significant and regrettable impacts unless we ask ourselves today, “How much is enough?” How much space do we want to leave for our co-inhabitants of this blue marble? Do we want to tell our grandkids that we valued proximity to true wildness enough to show humility and restraint? Or do we want to regale them with tales of how great the old days were when we used to see vast herds of deer and elk, the occasional lynx and other wild denizens who needed some space to roam? Sorry the titillation of the shiny new trail was too much to resist.
Since arriving here in 1984, Sloan has lived in communities throughout the valley, finally putting down roots and raising a family in Carbondale. Having recently stepped down as Wilderness Workshop’s Executive Director after 20-plus years, he’s still wondering what he’s going to be when he grows up. This column may be a start.