Adrenaline junkies get political

Do young recreationalists who like things faster and steeper care about the land the way their forebears did?

 

This fall, ski-movie producer Nick Waggoner took the stage in Bozeman, Montana, to tell the audience they were about to see something different. That was no surprise, since Waggoner's Sweetgrass Productions has become known for creative ski flicks. A couple of years ago, his company made an unusually arty film featuring athletes shredding powder in the buff. But there would be no naked people in this film, Waggoner told the audience; this would be a documentary about land use.

Called Jumbo Wild, its subject was the proposed Jumbo ski resort deep in British Columbia's Purcell Mountains. The Patagonia-backed film ended by asking the audience to sign a petition against the development. Waggoner told the packed theatre that similar debates are probably happening on nearly every skier's home turf, and he hoped Jumbo Wild inspired them to get educated and involved.

Vince Anderson and Steve House in the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy, from the documentary Jumbo Wild.
Christian Pondella, Courtesy Patagonia

It may not seem like a big deal that extreme skiers and environmentalists sat shoulder-to-shoulder to hear that message. But here's why it matters: Adrenaline junkies need to join conservationists in advocating for the lands they love. Fortunately, this is already happening through groups that engage recreationalists in stewardship, groups like the Access Fund, Protect Our Winters, the Surfrider Foundation, and Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation.

Still, the sentiment persists that younger recreationalists, who tend to like things faster and steeper, don't care about the land the way their backpacking forebears did. Bozeman-based writer Todd Wilkinson, for example, wrote earlier this year that "Recreation lobbyists are good at getting young people to demand more trails, but seldom has it resulted in them turning out en masse to reliably defend the integrity of existing wild places"

But there are hopeful signs of a growing conservation movement that should encourage people like Wilkinson. One indicator of this trend within the adventure sports community is the Shift Festival, started in Jackson Hole by Alpinist Magazine co-founder Christian Beckwith. Beckwith conceived of Shift to help recreationalists grapple with their impacts on the land and their roles in conservation efforts.

"We're fun hogs, but we almost need an evolution of the tribe," Beckwith said at the festival this fall. "We're coming out of nascency and heading into adulthood, and adulthood is a little bit more responsible."

There was a sense at Shift that recreationalists have a lot of potential to leverage their influence as part of a $646 billion-a-year industry. They could get more involved in issues such as climate change, the lack of adequate funding for land management agencies, Congress' failure to renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund, destructive efforts to transfer federal lands to state control, and the lack of diversity in the recreation community.

But how do you encourage rugged individualists to feel like they're an integral part of a movement? It turns out that hunters and anglers grappled with this problem 100 years ago.

In the late 1800s, Teddy Roosevelt and his buddies started worrying about the unregulated hunting and trapping that was decimating America's deer, bison, beaver and birds. They devised a credo, the "North American Model for Wildlife Conservation," that continues to underpin America's uniquely effective wildlife management system. At its heart is the conviction that the publicnot wealthy land baronsshould own wildlife.

Shift's leaders took inspiration from this model when they recently created a similar set of ground rules for recreationalists called the Principles for Advancing Outdoor Recreation and Conservation­­. The principles say that while recreationalists need access to well-managed public lands and waters, they also need to take responsibility for the places where they play.

Hunting's history shows that starting with seemingly no-brainer ground rules can lead to huge conservation payoffs. The North American Model provided the philosophical grounding that inspired sportsmen to ask for taxes on hunting and fishing gear, starting in the 1930s. Today that translates into hundreds of millions of dollars annually for wildlife habitat and management.

The North American Model also continues to shape some hunters' identities as conservation advocates. Last year, hundreds of sportsmen and women assembled on the steps of Montana's State Capitol to tell elected officials that transferring federal lands to state control would be a non-starter. Imagine the impact if even a fraction of the state's mountain bikers, climbers and backcountry skiers had joined them.

Sarah Keller is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She's an adrenaline junkie, hunter and environmental journalist based in Bozeman, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.