I was dismayed when I read Backpacker magazine recently. I worked for the National Park Service for eight years, and I’ve been a guide in Yellowstone National Park. I know there are some places we can hike to and camp at safely, and some places we should leave alone.
But now we have Backpacker magazine,
which boasts that it is the world’s first GPS-enabled
magazine, using Global Positioning Systems to reveal the
coordinates of wild places. In a note from editor Jonathan Dorn in
the April issue we’re told: "When you turn to our special
Glen Canyon and Yellowstone maps, you’ll see little dots
marking key points of interest along the routes. Those dots are
attached in turn to GPS coordinates. Plot them on a topo or
download them to a GPS unit, and you can boldly go where
practically no one has gone before."
National Park, grizzlies have gone these ways before, and they need
solitude and space to survive in an increasingly crowded and
hemmed-in world. Letting the world know about these seldom-visited
places just might invite disaster.
Of course, we all need
to know the basics of a place. We expect to find articles in a
magazine for backcountry hikers that are packed with information
about where a trailhead is located, the wildlife we can expect to
see, and the special regulations that might apply, as well as
dangers (think grizzlies) we need to know about.
Backpacker approach took a different tack: It
deliberately sent tourists into extremely remote places of
Yellowstone National Park, far from the required designated
campsites. What’s more, the selected destinations seemed to
go through some of the most dangerous and sensitive areas in the
Just out of curiosity, I called the park’s
backcountry office and spoke with staffer Anita Varley, to see if
she and others were even aware of the April issue. She was well
aware of it. In the weeks that passed since publication, her office
had been busy with damage control.
Varley wrote a
three-page letter to Backpacker, spelling out
her objections: three errors that put backpackers in Yellowstone on
three illegal routes, the failure to mention at least five
potential dangers that visitors might encounter, and the fact that
the magazine neglected to warn readers that their very presence in
these remote areas could displace grizzly bears or cause damage to
Varley opened her lengthy letter to the
editor by warning that "Backpacker
magazine’s lack of fact-checking could lead to your readers
getting injured or arrested unnecessarily." Instead of sending
backpackers to fragile parts of Yellowstone, she said, "an appeal
for their protection would have been appropriate."
Protecting places by urging people to stay away from them probably
doesn’t sell well as a message to magazine readers. But
sharing secret places can bring unexpected results. Thanks to
today’s GPS technology, hikers following the routes
recommended by magazines may find lots of other people just like
them, making formerly remote places crowded and "loved to death."
Varley said one region in Yellowstone was recently
profiled by two sources, resulting in a "horrific increase" in
visitors. It is no secret that the budget for Yellowstone and other
national parks can’t begin to fund the job required; when
millions of people descend on Yellowstone or Glen Canyon,
overworked rangers are hard put to keep everybody out of trouble.
The executive editor of Backpacker
told Yellowstone managers that he would "print corrections where
appropriate." That’s nice. But whether that turns people away
from grizzly areas or saves anyone from physical injury because
they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time won’t be
known until this summer’s hiking season is over.