In Jon’s post on grizzlies and recreation, there was a link to Forest Supervisor Chip Weber’s (I thought) thoughtful piece on recreation and risk and the role of the Forest Service. Of course it was in the context of the grizzly bear issue, but I thought it was worth relating it to the kind of recreation risks people have in other places. Frankly, I also liked the idea of a Forest Supervisor opening a discussion and telling us what he thinks.
How does the risk you are exposed to in these activities compare to other recreational activities that occur on the national forests?
What about rafting, boating, swimming, or fishing? Each of these activities has broad acceptance to occur on national forests, often in very wild and remote settings. From 2005-2014, there were an average of 3,536 fatal accidental drownings (non-boating related) annually in the
United States — about ten deaths per day. An additional 332 people died each year from drowning in boating-related incidents. We do many things to try to promote water safety, but we don’t tell folks to stay away from the water.
In “How to Survive (and Enjoy) Potentially Dangerous Rafting Season,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Jason Clay underscored the risks involved in recreating on the state’s rivers amid runoff from a snowpack more than 600 percent above the median. That story was published early June 20.
By the end of the next day, three more people had died in separate river accidents. And now, the body of Colorado Springs’s Roberta Sophia Rodriguez, who fell into the Rio Grande River earlier this month, has been recovered, bringing the fatality total for the season to six.
Back to Weber’s piece:
So why such a different reaction to the much lower risks from wildlife encounters? These are low probability, high consequence events. Deaths from grizzly attacks are horrific. We have a visceral response to that imagery that makes the probability of it happening seem much higher than it is. Activities like driving account for many more deaths, still, driving for pleasure is the number one recreational activity in the country. We normalize risks from these activities because accidents and deaths occur so much more frequently. For a more familiar example, people feel safer driving (fairly high risk) than flying (very low risk).
I would suggest that we consider these different activities on an equal basis in the context of their relative risks when promoting recreation on national forests and other wildlands. All of that said, I think this conversation needs to address an entirely different aspect of risk, namely, who gets to decide what risks anyone takes in their recreational pursuits. I like to make those choices for myself and I want you to be able to do so as well.
Thrill seekers enjoy activities like whitewater rafting and kayaking, rock climbing, hang gliding, downhill and backcountry skiing, and riding challenging trails. The joy of these experiences provides great quality of life for both locals and visitors. The economic benefits from this are
expressed directly in local communities and indirectly by making this a desirable place to live. How will we, as a society, decide these questions? Do we want our decisions to reflect a narrow range of values, where only a certain, few, “approved” uses of public lands may occur? As bears
expand their territories, do we want to increasingly put more and more public lands off limits to recreation that comes with risks? We have a forest plan that seeks to provide the “greatest good for the greatest number”, valuing all of these uses and providing places for awesome frontcountry uses like biking and running as well as amazing, quiet and solitude in world class wilderness. I hope we will continue to value it all.
When I think of the array of avalanches, mountain lion, grizzlies, rafting and so on, I think of two other questions that perhaps Weber did not call out.
1. Before we keep people out, have we exhausted our technological safety possibilities?
2. To what extent is it even possible to keep people out? Of course, you can not permit group or commercial activities. But in many cases, that would not keep people out. It is possible that people (say rafters with commercial permits) are much safer than non-commercial people with boats.
Again, I think it’s a good thing that Weber put all this on the table.