I’ve read a handful of opinion pieces recently by self-appointed nature experts who assert that other people are doing wilderness or the outdoors “wrong.”
With the emergence of the video game Pokémon Go last summer, for example, many teens and young adults made their way for the first time into national parks, wildlife refuges and other natural areas to capture their virtual prizes. In turn, many older folks snorted that those young people were missing the point of nature.
I’ve noticed a similar sentiment regarding other ways in which the younger generation spends time in the outdoors. Critics complain that young people take too many selfies, do not engage in enough self-reflection, pack inappropriate and expensive gear, and talk too much.
But this is not just about a younger tech-connected generation versus an older, more traditionally inclined group of nature enthusiasts. There’s also a growing divide among bikers, runners, horseback riders, car campers, backpackers and recreational hikers. The prevailing opinion among outdoor recreationists seems to be, “I’m doing it right, and the rest of you are doing it wrong.” Nowadays, it seems, everyone has an expert opinion about how nature “should” be enjoyed.
To that, I say, hogwash. I have a friend who rarely goes outside. He is a self-professed “nature hater,” tough as this is for many of us to imagine. But when he started playing Pokémon Go, things changed. For the first time, he began spending long periods of time outdoors.
“There are a bunch of Pokémon nerds here at the City Park,” he once texted me. I, on the other hand, enjoy backpacking silently through some of the wildest parts of New Mexico. I loved slogging my way through every one of New Mexico’s wilderness areas in 2014. My friend may not have been there, but at least he has now found a way to connect with the outdoor world — never mind that it’s not my way.
Even as a wilderness trekker, I’m sure I’d bring scorn down upon myself if I encountered nature snobs out in the wild — the kind of people who would disapprove of my landscape selfies or my need to type random notes on my iPhone. (Nature inspires me to write, which I do using a lightweight device.) Does using my phone make me less valid as a hiker?
There is no one way to appreciate and enjoy nature, and I believe that as long as visitors are not harming the environment or ruining another person’s experience, they should be allowed to interact with the wild in the way that best suits them, without being judged for it.
The U.S. Forest Service alone manages 193 million acres of trails, developed recreation sites, streams, ski areas, heritage sites, byways, recreation and scenic areas, wilderness, wild and scenic rivers and national monuments. They were designed to be diverse and deserve to be appreciated in equally diverse ways.
I recognize that there are complex issues involved in outdoor recreation. The battle over whether bikes should be allowed inside designated wilderness is a contentious one, which at its core questions the interpretation of the Wilderness Act itself. On one hand, it opens a Pandora’s box: If mountain bikes are not considered motorized transportation, then what about other “non-motorized” vehicles? Must one person’s outdoor experience be sacrificed for another’s? Besides, some bikers would argue that their chosen form of recreation causes fewer impacts than horseback riding.
Recreationists do cause impacts, and littering, altering or creating new trails, and disturbing wildlife are all crimes worthy of scorn from the outdoor police. But people who enjoy the outdoors in a way that suits them and does no harm? Not a problem.
So let’s quit expecting others to imitate our own personal experiences and values and instead encourage them to just get outside. The West is home to hundreds of forests, along with national and state parks and monuments, and there are hundreds of ways to experience them. Whether folks are glamping (indulging in luxury camping), fishing, bird watching, hunting, hiking, adding flair to their Instagram feeds or searching for imaginary tech creatures, they are still outside, interacting with nature.
At a time when too many people are being told they don’t belong in the United States, I hope the outdoor community will say there’s still a place for everyone on America’s public lands.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.