TORREY, Utah - J.W. Powell had returned from an extended summer vacation of camping, backpacking and whitewater boating. He found every outdoor-lover's dream: beautiful, untouched backcountry and not another tourist on the trail.
Best of all, this place was a secret, not
even shown on the maps.
So Powell did what many
avid hikers are doing: He published a
With detailed maps and stunning
pictures, Major John Wesley Powell splashed the Colorado River
country of Utah, Colorado and Arizona on the pages of his book, and
in magazines and newspapers as well. The one-armed Civil War
veteran, who led the pioneering 1869 expedition through the last
unknown portion of the United States, cashed in on the
A century since, the West
has been paved with an information highway of resources telling
outdoor consumers where to go, what they'll see and exactly how to
get there. That leads the purveyors of what many critics call
"eco-porn" to debate the fundamental question: To tell or not to
"Are we exploiting the environment by
telling and showing all - the way that some magazines exploit
women?" asks professional outdoor photographer Scott T. Smith.
During a recent discussion of the ethics and impacts of outdoor
writing and photography, sponsored by the Entrada Institute in
Torrey, Utah, Smith answered his question: "As long as you can make
a dollar from naming your favorite slot canyon or photographing it,
Destination stories follow a
common plot: "I came, I saw, I was awed."
read one more story about somebody finding an Anasazi ruin and
having a spiritual experience, I'm going to barf all over the
magazine," says Barry Scholl. The associate editor of Salt Lake
City Magazine is currently co-writing a centennial guidebook on
Utah. "When I write about a place I like, increasingly I'm changing
the names to protect the innocent."
recreation has become a growth industry, with equipment sales
jumping 30 percent annually. Consumers demand places to use all the
hiking boots, tents, sleeping bags, sport utility vehicles and
high-energy bars they buy. Perhaps nowhere is the stampede more
pronounced than the Colorado Plateau, the forbidding,
once-impenetrable land that in Powell's day was almost unknown.
Today it annually hosts 300 million visitors. In this place, where
it takes 20 years to mend the damage caused by a single footprint
in the life-sustaining web of crusty soil, visitor impact has
created an environmental crisis.
Remoteness is no
longer a protection for fragile areas, says Walter Dabney,
superintendent of Canyonlands National Park, who ordered public
closure of two little-known destinations in the park after a
guidebook extolled their beauty and gave detailed
"Every good place now, if it's
special, somebody's writing about it. Do you have a First Amendment
right? Yes, but does that give you the liberty to just expose these
places with no responsibility to educate the public?"
Many peddlers of the West's scenery contend that
their products teach visitors ways to reduce environmental damage
to the backcountry.
"Our guidebooks encourage
people to go out and explore in a safe, environmentally ethical
manner," says Margaret Foster, editor-in-chief at The Mountaineers,
a nonprofit guidebook publishing company in Seattle. "Every one of
our manuscripts is required to be reviewed by land management
agencies and if they request we not include a particular area
because it's fragile or ask that we write about an area in such a
way as to not expose its exact location, we abide by those
But preaching the virtues of
low-impact camping may not make much difference to consumers
bombarded with television images of "extreme" sports, where
wilderness recreation sells soda pop, athletic shoes and
"The "Tread Lightly" and
"Leave No Trace" programs are, in my opinion, miserable failures
because they are not reaching the MTV crowd," says Michael Hodgson,
senior editor of Adventure West magazine and an author of
guidebooks. "These are people who are out to "bag" that mountain
peak and "do" a whitewater rapid. Many of them are not visiting the
land with the care the writer intended."
Howe, Southwest editor for Backpacker magazine, acknowledges that
the paragraph educating visitors about protecting the land is
frequently the target of an editor's delete button in the
adrenaline-fueled hype of outdoor
"Readers are very resistant to
environmental rhetoric and rules," says Howe. "We know what people
want. They want maps - detailed maps. They want to know where they
can get the maximum experience for the minimum investment of time.
And they don't want to see anybody else when they get there."
Many of these modern-day explorers are
inexperienced and dangerously unprepared for the brutal realities
of the backcountry. Ever since the Donner Party ended in tragedy
after following a guidebook recommendation for an "easy" shortcut,
questions have been raised about the subjectiveness of destination
"We worry a lot about liability," says
Capitol Reef National Park Superintendent Chuck Lundy. "A lot of
these articles and books describe routes that sound very easy and
quick. But many people discover too late that they're actually very
Some rural search-and-rescue teams blame
guidebooks' vague directions or poorly drawn maps for getting
people lost in remote areas. But guidebooks that are packed with
step-by-step instructions also are
"Why do people feel they need to know
what's at every milepost or quarter-mile turn of the canyon?" asks
Canyon Country Zephyr editor Jim Stiles of Moab, who prefaces any
invitation to go hiking with a vow of secrecy. "People don't have a
sense of adventure anymore. If there wasn't this massive group of
uncreative herd animals that have to read guidebooks, there
wouldn't be a problem because nobody would buy them."
Many outdoor scribes contend publicizing public
lands can help preserve them. They point to the writings of Aldo
Leopold, John Muir, Bernard DeVoto, Wallace Stegner, William
Kittredge and even Edward Abbey - writings that helped protect
national parks and foster an awareness of vanishing
"People cannot love the land unless
they know about the land," says Adventure West's Hodgson. "There's
an elitist, "it's mine" attitude toward public lands that goes back
to the conquering of the American West. The public has a right to
know about these places and a right to care for them."
While he believes "public lands are fair game in
all but rare circumstances," Salt Lake Tribune recreation editor
and guidebook author Tom Wharton says he avoids specifying
locations of vulnerable archaeological sites or alpine fishing
"Should we be writing anything on
overcrowded national parks like Zion or Arches? Or, by
concentrating use on those parks and their paved trails, are we
doing the environment a service by keeping people out of
less-managed and less well-known Bureau of Land Management and
Forest Service areas?"
The siege mentality that
seeps into the debate may be misplaced. Surveys show that most
tourists to canyon country don't pay a lot of attention to Outside
magazine's lists or the latest Michael Kelsey guidebook. Russ von
Koch, BLM Moab District recreation planner, says researchers
recently asked 1,500 mountain bikers how they had learned about the
Moab area. Fifty percent had heard through friends and family.
Magazines accounted for 28 percent of the destination plans and "at
the very bottom of the list were government agencies," says von
Within conservation groups, where-to-go
journalism has become a contentious issue. While organizations like
the Sierra Club sell trail guides, the Southern Utah Wilderness
Alliance will not endorse any guidebook. The decision apparently
came after a SUWA official allowed his accolades to be printed on
the back of a guidebook. The book revealed details of several
little-known hiking destinations in Utah's San Rafael
"We have not actually come out yet and
started burning guidebooks," says SUWA's Scott Groene, "but given
our goals of trying to protect the land, we felt we had to adopt
this policy to be consistent in our position."
Guidebooks and articles about seldom-visited
places have also become a hot topic within the agency that manages
the largest chunk of the Colorado Plateau, the Bureau of Land
Guidebooks are "a double-edged sword"
for the agency, says Penelope Dunn, the area manager for the San
Rafael Resource Area. "On one hand, they provide people with maps
that we don't have to do," she says. "On the other hand, some are
very irresponsible and tell people to go on closed roads or in
silderness study areas."
Philip Gezon, an
outdoor recreation planner for the BLM in Monticello, Utah, says he
recently received the latest copy of a magazine for 4-wheel drive
enthusiasts which features a story about great jeep rides to Indian
ruins in the San Juan Resource Area. "The story contains Global
Positioning System grids showing people exactly how to find the
sites," says Gezon. "We're seeing more and more of this crap and it
is a real threat. These people have a checklist and they want to
see a certain number of ruins in a short period of time."
The Utah Travel Council has adopted a new
mission statement that omits any mention of "promotion," part of
director Dean Reader's attempt to advocate quality recreational
experiences over quantity.
"We're hung up on this
windshield mode of tourism, where we figure even though we lose
money on each unit of visitor, we'll make it up in volume," says
Reader of Utah's $3.35 billion annual industry. "So, we bear the
cost of the impacts to the land without getting adequate payment in
return. We have to seriously consider a fee system for access to
popular public lands."
He picks up a copy of an
issue of Men's Journal magazine, emblazoned with the teaser: "The
Eight Greatest Hikes in America." One of the hikes listed is in
southern Utah's Escalante Canyon country.
how much you have to pay to go on one of the eight greatest hikes
in the world?" he asks. "Not one cent."
photojournalists who celebrate the West believe the greatest danger
comes from a reader's lack of context. The escalating pursuit of
outback recreation can create a mythological wilderness, one that
only exists in coffee-table picture books or the passionate prose
of destination articles. It is a place devoid of creeping
suburbanization or air pollution.
"I was reading
a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon to my kid the other day where Calvin
wants to portray himself as a model citizen in his youth, so he
takes a photograph of himself sitting on his bed after he pushes
all the crap off to one side, out of camera range," says Moab
landscape photographer Tom Till, who has resorted to making up
place names to protect the subjects of his
"There is a danger that people will
see the kind of pristine photos I take and be lulled into thinking
that everything is perfectly OK and there are no threats to these
Adds photographer Scott Smith:
"Sometimes I want to put a warning on my photo captions that says:
Bulldozers are just over the horizon! The newest paved road is
right behind me, and I had to wait three months for the haze to
clear so I could get this picture."
Christopher Smith reports
for the Salt Lake Tribune.
photographs were taken from Revealing Territory, published in 1992
by the University of New Mexico Press.