A Tangled Web Indeed: Wilderness, the Amenity Economy, and the Environment

From the Canyon Country Zephyr

I don’t mean to pick on Congressperson DeGette, she is just echoing what many have said,  but reading this quote:

“If we’re going to be serious about combatting the climate crisis, we absolutely must start by preserving more of our public lands,” DeGette said. “Those of us who have been to the magical places included in this bill know how special they are, and why they must be protected for future generations to enjoy. While preserving more of our public lands is important for our environment and economy, it’s also important to the millions of outdoor enthusiasts who visit these majestic areas every year.”

It reminds me a bit of the piece on the Virtuals and Physicals last Friday. Words can do anything. In words, you can say preserving public lands is good for climate. In reality, though, renewable energy projects, powerlines, and mining for minerals needed for low carbon technologies do not lead to “preservation.” So if we were really being honest, we wouldn’t say that.  Or perhaps again it’s a different degree of literalness needed when we interpret politicians’ statements.

But when I saw “preservation” and “millions of outdoor enthusiasts”, I thought of Conundrum Hot Springs and the broader issue of how so-called “industrialized recreation” fits into the concept of “preservation.”

Which reminded me of this quote found in Jim Stiles’ piece here from 2008 in the Canyon Country Zephyr.  The Zephyr, like TSW, is run via contributions, so if you appreciate their reporting, please donate. The whole piece is worth a read:

Almost a decade ago, Bill Hedden, then head of the Grand Canyon Trust’s Arches/Canyonlands office, now its executive director, wrote an essay for the Trust’s Advocate magazine. His observations about the ever-growing recreation ‘amenities economy’ could not have been more compelling or insightful.

In part he said:

“Throughout the region…visitation has grown by more than 400 percent since 1980. This surge of interest has coincided with a proliferation of new recreation technologies–some exotic like modern ATVs, humvees, mountain bikes, climbing gear, jet skis and hangliders; and others prosaic like water filters, sunscreen and dry suits. Armed with these new toys, today’s legions of visitors can exploit every niche in familiar areas and enter terrain that previously was protected by remoteness…And though it is common to blame the destruction on a small percentage of lawless visitors, my experience brings to mind the old joke that a mere 99 percent of users give a bad name to all the rest. Make no mistake–we are in this together.

“The Grand Canyon Trust has just completed a major strategic planning exercise… Everywhere we looked, natural resource professionals agreed that industrial-strength recreation holds more potential to disrupt natural processes on a broad scale than just about anything else. It’s a very tough problem affecting all of us. We will be actively searching for ways to deal with it.”

But that was in 1999. The phrase, “amenities economy” was just becoming familiar to environmentalists. They were searching for a response to rural Westerners’ claim that wilderness designation and other restrictions on the West’s public lands were destroying its economy—an economy based in the traditional extractive industries like mining, ranching and timber.

Some within the conservation movement latched onto recreation and tourism—and the amenities that they demanded, as a “clean” economic solution. But Hedden’s concerns, in 2008, are almost antiquated notions, even to his own organization.

Hedden said that in 1999. And here we are in 2022, just yesterday wondering whether better maps would lead to overuse. And from this piece, also by Stiles:

But in 1998, as environmentalists grew increasingly frustrated by their efforts to protect wildlands in the West, their strategies shifted. At a landmark ‘wilderness mentoring’ conference that May, attended by scores of the country’s environmentalist leaders, a more aggressive, down-and-dirty strategy was proposed. A prominently displayed quotation by Michael Carroll, now of The Wilderness Society, established the tone and direction of all that would come later:

“Car companies and makers of sports drinks use wilderness to sell their products. We have to market wilderness as a product people want to have.”

That, in its most succinct essence, was the theme of the conference. While the organizers of the event paid tribute to the wilderness activists who had come before, clearly the purpose of the meeting was to propose a new approach. “Although it is important to pioneer new wilderness strategies,” the report explained almost as an afterthought, “we must do so with knowledge of what has come before.”

With that token nod to the “importance of history” and to the “philosophical and political contexts” of the wilderness movement, the conference explored the new territories of salesmanship, marketing and media manipulation to win the legislative wilderness battle. One might think you were being taught how to sell a new Buick.

By 2003, GCT’s Hedden, seemed ready to accept and even embrace the changes. In a Zephyr interview he admitted, “We’ve had some of the most spectacular country in the world, and no one else in it. The fact that those days are just about over is sad, but there are many more people in the world, and they have found this place, and there’s no keeping them away.” And so, suddenly, the idea of embracing an unbridled recreation/amenities economy that had once worried the most enthusiastic supporters of wilderness, achieved political, if not moral, acceptability.


1 thought on “A Tangled Web Indeed: Wilderness, the Amenity Economy, and the Environment”

  1. I was fortunate to have Conundrum Hot Springs to ourselves back in fall 1979, but here’s another example of where this is heading. We may have to put up with a lot restrictions to experience “wilderness character” (to avoid being trammeled). This only works at all if someone pays for it. The role of volunteers is likely to be important, too. I hope those who benefit economically from selling the amenity economy will be contributing both money and volunteers.

    An interesting observation: “Most people in favor of a permit system claimed to be residents of the area and argued that only tourists should be required to buy a permit,” he wrote. “While this might limit the influx of visitors to the Blue Lakes area, I am not sure preferential treatment is the best solution because it could cause resentment between tourists and residents.” (And it’s probably illegal.)


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