Thursday, March 21, 2013

I Love You to Death

River Trip in Desolation Canyon, Utah
I really like being in wild places. There's nothing like the smell of fresh mountain air, or the silence of the desert or the wet green of the jungle. It's thrilling to step into the new and unknown, where the plants and animals in their natural habitat are the rule and people and all our stuff are the exception. It changes your life when you look out over the red rock formations in Southern Utah, the glaciers of Patagonia, or the spring fed rivers of North Florida. I'm not alone in wanting to get closer to nature. Ecotourism is increasingly popular and now one can easily visit places only dreamed about by past generations. And herein lies the ongoing dilemma. On the one hand, interest in nature supports the creation and sustenance of preserves and parks. When people want to see penguins or elephants or hike a mountain trail, they will pay for the privilege. Visitors pay admission fees which in turn pay for the operation of the parks. Governments support popular parks and preserves. Tourists pour money into the communities that surround parks and preserves in the form of dining, lodging and transportation. Nature lovers buy camping equipment and expensive cameras and binoculars. All these purchases direct money into the connected communities and industries. Ecotourism is arguably good for local economies and gives communities more reason to protect the land, plants and animals. But on the other hand, as the tourist destination thrives, the stress on the protected area increases too. Visitors require basic services such as bathrooms and water. If the site is popular enough, entrepreneurs will rise to the occasion and build hotels, restaurants and gift shops, which encourages even more visitors. Soon there are lines to see the geysers and people crowded around every wild animal for photo ops. The hotel employees and tour guides also need services, such as grocery stores and gas stations. More people and more money lead to more garbage and pollution. As the towns and cities grow, natural areas give way to roads and houses and waste treatment plants. Even if we avoid the tourist towns and stay in remote areas, our mere presence changes the once pristine habitat. We may be careful packing out all that we brought in, but we crush plants and insects as we walk, accidentally (or not) leave trash, and introduce foreign organisms on our clothing and gear. We have an impact.

Cryptobiotic Soil in Desolation Canyon. 
This week I read an alarming article about the declining numbers of Monarch Butterflies in this year's migration from Mexico. The article, by a zoologist here at the University of Florida, talks about several possible causes for the decreased numbers, all of which are related to humans, and a general failure of stewardship. Climate change, pesticide use and loss of habitat are disturbing, but did not surprise me. But what was upsetting was reading that we have disrupted the ecosystem to the point that merely visiting the colonies of butterflies was causing them to die. Logging has gone unchecked in the area, leading to erosion, and the huge numbers of butterfly loving hikers now raise dust clouds when they walk on the dirt paths to the trees where the monarchs winter. The dust clogs the butterfly spiracles (breathing holes), causing them to suffocate. Numbers of visitors are supposed to be limited to protect the monarchs, but demand to see them is trumping the concern for the resource. We are loving them to death. It really should not be surprising.  As we insert ourselves into previously remote places, we are bound to see changes.

This got me thinking about whether or not we can simultaneously sustain wild and natural areas, and at the same time, bring large numbers of visitors to see them. At what point would it be better to visit a zoo or botanic garden, rather than go to the source?  Can we control the flow and impact of people in natural areas by issuing very limited numbers of permits? And would it be best to fence off some vast areas where people can't go at all, so that we don't just foul up everything?  But if we control the numbers of visitors, or don't visit at all, what happens to the lives of the people who have come to depend on the new eco-economy? And who should we limit? I don't want to lose my chance to see the wonders of the world and I'm sure no one else does, either. And is limiting access fair? What about people who are not able bodied? Shouldn't they have access, too? I thought about this a lot as we traveled around Patagonia this fall. I saw the impact on the environment in the form of trash, tour buses full of people and all the connected hotel, food and sewage services, and city growth encroaching into neighboring forests. But without the tourists, would growth have occurred anyway, but without any thought of protecting the penguins or glaciers?  

I know there are parks and eco-lodges that do a really good job of preserving the natural areas that the visitors come to see. But I think that we can't fool ourselves into thinking that it is harmless for us to be there, just because we are being careful. We have an impact. The trick is in keeping that impact small. I still want to see the world, and I feel conflicted about how to do it. I really don't have the answers. 
Bear and Cub, Desolation Canyon, Utah

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