When Larry Burke first started Outside magazine, he named it after his boat Mariah, meaning "winds of change."
That was in the mid-1970s, right around the time
Patagonia started making jackets out of stuff that looked like
carpet. Right around the time swarms of young people were
discovering the great outdoors.
Once he gained
media-savvy, Burke ditched the obscure name. But like many first
hunches, the magazine's first name proved something of an omen. In
an 18-year publishing adventure, Outside has managed to ride the
crest of a cultural wave it also helps propel.
"My hunch is that more people are going into the
outdoors than ever before," says Greg Cliburn, an executive editor
at Outside's main office in Santa Fe, N.M. "I'm sure that includes
designated wilderness. That creates demand and a need for more
information. Then that information puts the seed in people's minds
to use the outdoors more."
subscribers, Outside is a powerful force. "Welcome OUTSIDE!" begins
one of the magazine's letters seeking advertising accounts. "It's
where more and more Americans are spending their personal time."
"'''OUTSIDE's readers are the trendsetters of this booming
marketplace. Why? Because they do more, travel more, socialize more
and consequently spend more."
spreads direct readers to the top 10 this-or-that. Beautiful young
people play amid breathtaking scenery. "Just-do-it" ads jumpstart
the adrenaline: "Introducing the North Face Kichatna, the first
extreme weather Gore-Tex 3-Ply rapid assault jacket, specifically
designed for the pursuit of fear." Outside is a seductive source of
Occasionally, the monthly
runs destination pieces tempered with advice about caring for the
land, or even straightforward environmental stories. It routinely
wins magazine awards; readers who use the old Playboy line, "I
subscribe for the great articles," aren't hiding behind a
So what's the
Anger directed at magazines like Outside
may spring from a sense that its readers - mostly young urban
professionals - don't recreate in the West or elsewhere so much as
they "buy" outdoor experiences.
As Moab newspaper
publisher Jim Stiles puts it, the lycra set seeks speed and
efficiency in the outback.
Idaho writer Stephen
Lyons says Outside's flippant approach prompts its readers to treat
areas outside their cities and suburbs as scenic backdrops for
their narcissism. Between the lines the message is: This land is
for human consumption.
John Viehman, executive
editor of Backpacker, one of Outside's competitors with a
circulation of 240,000, echoes that reproach: "We don't see the
outdoors as a place to compete. For us, wilderness is a cathedral,
not just another place to have a party."
does Outside respond?
Editor Greg Cliburn says
he's not so sure Outside encourages people to compete in the
wilderness. "Mountain-biking does have a high potential to be
destructive, but isn't it better than gambling or drinking? Let's
put things in perspective."
Cliburn asks: "Is
the only way to save the natural world to ignore it? The less
readers know about the wilderness, the less they'll care. We don't
talk about places people shouldn't go by law, but public land is
public land. I'm not going to stand around making moral decisions
for other people."
In his seven years with
Outside, Cliburn says he doesn't recall repressing a story because
it contained information about fragile places. Editors don't have
an across-the-board policy on how to deal with sensitive areas, but
they're not likely to cover those areas in the magazine's
destinations section, says Cliburn. "Instead, we'll put in a blurb
about a trail in danger, or something like that."
As for Sierra magazine - the publication for
536,000 Sierra Club members - its editors also promote getting out
there, though they steer away from travel stories about overused
places, says editor Reed McManus.
Viehman says editors there frequently discuss what to do about
sensitive places, and even ran a story on the dilemma, though no
set policy exists. When Backpacker started 21 years ago, the staff
routinely changed place names; then he says they realized the
policy was unrealistic. More recently, editors have changed names
of Anasazi ruins; other articles omitted details such as the exact
location of Edward Abbey's grave.
"Do I tell
people about public lands?" Outside's Cliburn asks. "Yeah, they'll
find it out from someone else anyway. If Outside is the access
point, then they'll be getting information too about how to save
Peter Heller, an
adventure-travel writer who sometimes changes place names in his
stories, calls that argument the drug dealer defense: "It's like
saying, "If I don't sell this crack, someone else will. And, it's
better coming from me because I'll give them a pair of basketball
shoes every now and then." "
Whether the message
is better coming from one source or another, publicity can be the
key to saving wild places, says Sierra magazine's McManus. The
Sierra Club organized outings to Alaska in the late 1970s to gain
support for the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, and McManus says the club is
presently leading trips into Utah wilderness study areas to train
activists lobbying for a stronger state wilderness bill.
"You may choose to keep a place secret, but when
the mining and timber companies find out, you've got another choice
to make," he says. "Many places are unknown to recreationists until
conservationists get involved."
But to Stiles,
one of the worst aspects of the growing consumption of wilderness
is its hypocrisy. After the Bureau of Land Management killed a cow
hanging out in a wilderness study area (see page 10), at the
request of hikers led by writer Steve Allen, Stiles says, "I can't
help but wonder just who will cause more damage to Chimney Canyon:
the lonely cow who wandered its length for more than a decade, or
the hordes of hikers who will read Mr. Allen's guidebook and flock
to the canyon for the "90s version of solitude."
Stiles, writing in his monthly Canyon Country
Zephyr, concludes: "If ultimately, the hikers do more damage to the
canyon than the cow, will Mr. Allen be willing to be dispatched as
The tell-or-don't-tell debate is far from
over. Outside's Cliburn says he's used to receiving angry letters
after the magazine publishes a "Top 10" destination piece or a
story about some great new wild area.
letters usually complain that the magazine spoiled someone's
enjoyment of a once-secret spot. He says he rarely gets letters
saying, "I followed your advice about place X and it's trashed. I
think everyone, including me, should stay away to protect the
"I would take a lesson from that," says