Recreationists are smarter than cows

  Dear HCN,

Our backyards make up the majority of the nation's public lands, and yet we Westerners don't know how to talk about the future of those lands. That was clearly shown by two essays on recreation user fees in the Oct. 13, 1997, High Country News.

Terry Anderson and Steve Hinchman both assumed that logging, mining and livestock grazing harm the land, while outdoor recreation does not. The two differed mainly on strategy: Hinchman doesn't believe recreational user fees will empower environmentalists; Anderson believes they will.

Both essayists think environmental damage is the result of other people: loggers, ranchers and miners. Recreationists are blameless because what they do is benign. Because motorized vehicle users obviously cause damage, they are defined as not being outdoor recreationists. But it is never explained why downhill skiers and snowboarders, kayakers and rafters who camp on riverine beaches, rock climbers who dangle from cliffs on brightly colored ropes, mountain bikers and hunters are not also cast out of the recreation tribe.

Honest conversation will begin only when we admit that no outdoor recreation is benign. A recent survey in BioScience found that outdoor recreation was the second largest cause (after dams) for the decline of endangered and threatened species. This will only get worse because public-land agencies have decreed outdoor recreation to be the current "highest and best use of our public lands," as HCN pointed out in its coverage of the Lake Tahoe Tourism Conference (HCN, 12/23/96).

Just as serious, even as the intensity and kinds of recreational uses increase, we chop away at our land-management agencies' ability to protect the land. The threat is stark: Not only are we recreationists more numerous than chainsaws, we are more intelligent than cows. Solutions won't be easy. Land stewardship will require each of us to place land health above our desires. It is time for recreationists and miners, loggers and ranchers to meet somewhere along the line demarcated by land health on one side and land use on the other.

Richard L. Knight

Fort Collins, Colorado

The writer teaches wildlife conservation at Colorado State University.