I was dismayed when I read Backpacker magazine recently. I worked for the National Park Service for eight years, and I’ve been a guide in Yellowstone National Park. I know there are some places we can hike to and camp at safely, and some places we should leave alone.
But now we have Backpacker magazine,
which boasts that it is the world’s first GPS-enabled
magazine, using Global Positioning Systems to reveal the
coordinates of wild places. In a note from editor Jonathan Dorn in
the April issue, we’re told: "When you turn to our special
Glen Canyon and Yellowstone maps, you’ll see little dots
marking key points of interest along the routes. Those dots are
attached, in turn, to GPS coordinates. Plot them on a topo or
download them to a GPS unit, and you can boldly go where
practically no one has gone before."
Practically no one
— except, for instance, the grizzlies in Yellowstone National
Park, which need solitude and space to survive in an increasingly
crowded and hemmed-in world. Letting the world know about some
seldom-visited places just might invite disaster.
course, we all need to know the basics of a place. We expect to
find articles in a magazine for backcountry hikers that are packed
with information about where a trailhead is located, the wildlife
we can expect to see, and the special regulations that might apply,
as well as any dangers (think grizzlies) we need to know about.
But the Backpacker approach took a
different tack: It deliberately sent tourists into extremely remote
areas in Yellowstone National Park, far from the required
designated campsites. What’s more, the selected destinations
seemed to go through some of the most dangerous and sensitive areas
in the park.
Out of curiosity, I called the park’s
backcountry office and spoke with staffer Anita Varley, to see if
she and others were even aware of the April issue. She was well
aware of it: In the weeks that passed since publication, her office
had been busy with damage control.
Varley wrote a
three-page letter to Backpacker, spelling out
her objections: three errors that put backpackers in Yellowstone on
three illegal routes, the failure to mention at least five
potential dangers that visitors might encounter, and the fact that
the magazine neglected to warn readers that their very presence in
these remote areas could displace grizzly bears or cause damage to
Varley opened her lengthy letter to the
editor by warning that "Backpacker
magazine’s lack of fact-checking could lead to your readers
getting injured or arrested unnecessarily." Instead of sending
backpackers to fragile parts of Yellowstone, she said, "an appeal
for their protection would have been appropriate."
Protecting places by urging people to stay away from them probably
doesn’t sell well as a message to magazine readers. But
sharing secret places can bring unexpected — and unwelcome
— results. Thanks to today’s GPS technology, hikers
following the routes recommended by magazines may find lots of
other people just like them, making formerly remote places crowded
and "loved to death."
Varley said one region in
Yellowstone was recently profiled by two sources, resulting in a
"horrific increase" in visitors. It is no secret that the budget
for Yellowstone and other national parks can’t begin to fund
the work required. When millions of people descend on Yellowstone
or Glen Canyon, overworked rangers are hard put to keep everybody
out of trouble.
The executive editor of
Backpacker told Yellowstone managers that he
would "print corrections where appropriate." That’s nice. But
whether that turns people away from grizzly areas or saves anyone
from physical injury because they’re in the wrong place at
the wrong time won’t be known until this summer’s
hiking season is over.