Hear the debate rage. As someone once said, academics get so angry at each other because the stakes are so small.
"The author does not seem to
understand, and thus misrepresents, many of the concepts he wants
scrutinized," asserts one scientist. "I focus on what appears to be
the source of his snappishness," says another. To which the object
of their criticism replies, "Unfortunately, only one side is
usually presented as truth. Typically, it is the side on which our
bread is buttered."
What has agitated these
"fudds," as the late, great philosopher Gracie Allen called folks
with advanced degrees? It was not the eternal scholarly argument
over the nature of mankind, the existence of God or the designated
hitter. They were arguing about having fun, and their squabble took
place in the pages of The Journal of Leisure Research. This is a
quarterly "devoted to original investigations (in) the field of
leisure studies," a field in which 21 universities now grant
Recreation is a scholarly discipline
first of all because it is big business "-at least $300 billion a
year "- but even more because ours is the first era in human
history in which millions of people identify themselves by how they
have fun. From Ancient Rome to Victorian England, there were always
a few aristocrats who cared more about chariot-racing, falconry or
dueling than running their estates or pleasing their mistresses.
Now, mass affluence and inexpensive toys allow the general run of
folk to follow suit.
Many do. All over the
country are mountain-bikers, canoers, hikers, snowmobilers,
snowboarders and motorboaters so devoted to their recreation of
choice that it has replaced ethnic group, religion, political
ideology and occupation as their tribal identity.
So it does not take a Ph.D. to figure out that
having fun is now a major political issue. Even if you don't
regularly use words like epistemology or semiotics, you can see
that snowmobilers and cross-country skiers are likely to covet the
same mountain trail, just as kayakers and power-boaters will want
the same lake, all of which makes public land a battleground. This
is the new great debate over the publicly owned land in the West.
>Right now, thanks to their support from the
Bush Administration, mechanized recreators seem to have the upper
hand. Just last month the Bureau of Land Management announced it
would delay long-planned regulations that would restrict
all-terrain vehicle use on millions of acres of public land in the
Nor was it an accident that the forces
angry about this delay first mentioned its potential threat to
other recreations "- not to the natural world. The BLM lands
"provide millions of acres of key big-game habitat," proclaimed
Rep. Maurice Hinchey, an upstate New York Democrat whose statement
was endorsed by the Wilderness Society and other environmentalists.
Hinchey then went on to mention the songbirds,
plants and rivers that might be damaged by the uncontrolled use of
all-terrain vehicles. But the opening appeal to the hunting lobby
revealed both a political maturity that is welcome and a political
hard-headedness that might be misplaced.
maturity involves the implicit rejection of the claim by some
non-mechanized recreators that their leisure pursuits of say,
backpacking in the wilderness, are not mere recreation, but a
spiritual communion with nature and whatever lies behind it.
Pifflesnortch! One person's idea of fun is
inherently not superior to another's. True, one hiker almost
certainly does less damage to the natural world than one
off-roader. But there are many more hikers in the West these days,
enough in some places to degrade the resource. Though this is a
good argument for reserving more public land for the hikers, it
does not justify the notion that the hiker is morally superior to
the ATV driver.
There is also reason to wonder
whether the nonmotorized recreation set and its environmentalist
allies have gotten more worried than necessary about being painted
as elitists who would challenge the public's right to enjoy its own
land. Hikers and their allies might be under-estimating the public.
In 1998, the U.S. Forest Service, hardly an
ultra-green outfit, conducted a nationwide poll about public
attitudes toward wilderness. The survey revealed that people wanted
more wild land, and, perhaps surprisingly, not primarily for having
fun. In fact, "recreation opportunities" were one of the least
important benefits of wilderness reported in the survey, well
behind "knowing it exists," or "scenic beauty," and even farther
behind protecting the land for future generations and "- who would
have dreamed it? "- "preserving ecosystems."
Could the American people be wilderness
aesthetes? We\'ll never know unless some political faction has the
courage to try to mobilize these lovers of public lands for their