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 guidebook.
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 adventure-tourism boom.
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 tell?
"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, someone will."
Destination stories follow a common plot: "I came, I saw, I was awed."
"If I 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."
Outdoor 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 directions.
"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 requests."
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 muscle-bound pickups.
"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."
Steve 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 adventure.
"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 writing.
"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 hard."
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 criticized.
"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 wilderness.
"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 lakes.
"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 Koch.
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 Swell.
"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 Management.
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.
"Guess how much you have to pay to go on one of the eight greatest hikes in the world?" he asks. "Not one cent."
Some 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 portraits.
"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 areas."
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.
The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:
- BLM land: outstanding opportunities for crowding
Mark Klett's photographs were taken from Revealing Territory, published in 1992 by the University of New Mexico Press.