You may have heard the news: Fewer Americans are venturing into anything that resembles the outdoors. According to a Nature Conservancy study, the number of visitors to state and national parks is declining, and fewer people are hunting, fishing or going camping.
Why are people trading in their hiking boots for slippers? The study’s authors, Oliver Pergams of the University of Illinois-Chicago and Patricia Zaradic of the Environmental Leadership Program, say the culprits are high oil prices and a newly coined word, “videophilia,” which translates to a love of electronic media, namely the internet, television and movies. The two researchers say that high gas prices and the siren’s call of the computer and television can account for 97.5 percent of the decline in visits to national parks.
Apparently, any yearning to visit a wild place or national park can be assuaged by watching a steady stream of television shows -- especially now that entire networks devote themselves to wildlife and outdoor recreation. Why go searching the Rocky Mountains for the sight of a bighorn sheep, marmot or a pika when you can tune into an episode of Animal Planet’s “Meerkat Manor” to get your critter fix? There’s even something for the homebound survivalist: Discovery Channel’s “Survivor Man” and “Man vs. Wild” offer dueling treks into the perilous wild.
We can also choose to commune with nature through the safety of our personal and workplace computers. Take a peek at any computer screen saver or desktop image, and you’ll likely find a serene waterfall, a reclining cougar or an Ansel Adams photograph of a snowcapped mountain range. Forget mountaineering: Web sites offer 24-hour, live streaming images of Everest Base Camp. And for animal voyeurs, there’s everything from Yellowstone wolf cams to manatee cams.
When millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett’s plane went missing in September 2007, friends and family decided to employ the public in the search. Web-surfers could pull up satellite images of the Nevada-California wilderness search area, scan the terrain for wreckage of Fossett’s plane and report any findings via e-mail. Reportedly, thousands enjoyed the thrill of the hunt while basking in the warm glow of their computer monitor. This combined getting out in nature and a good cause, too.
Safety is key, since wild places can be scary. Hurricanes, wildfires, mudslides, volcanoes, earthquakes and avalanches rage out of the television set from all over the world, and a week doesn’t go by without a hapless hiker going missing or some man-eating predator out marauding. This live video, flashy graphic, full-color manipulation must be convincing, as more and more of us conclude that we’d be better off staying home. The manipulation is more subtle but no less pervasive in the print media, too. A typical story about the search for Fossett describes the Nevada mountains as “desolate” and “jagged”; the landscape “savage” and “inhospitable.” Over time, the media construct a reality for us that’s so dangerous we’d best leave these places alone.
If media haven’t scared you into staying out of a national park or wilderness, at the least it has told you it’s expensive to suit up for it. Not long ago, there wasn’t much of an activity-segmented outdoor apparel market. Before Lycra, fleece and sweat-wicking socks, hikers, mountain climbers and other outdoorsy types made do with wool, canvas, recycled military gear and old-fashioned rain slickers. In the era of REI and mega-stores, we’ve been sold on the notion that we must be properly outfitted, decked head to toe with quick-dry, ultra-lightweight, reversible, Gortex-infused apparel. Backpacks are space-age in design, and side pockets are legion. Let’s not forget the gadgetry, for that bottomless backpack has plenty of room for an iPod, water bladder and mouth tube, water purifier, cellular phone, and a GPS unit for finding your way back to your sports-rack crowned SUV. It must be true: You’ve got to get the gear if you want to play.
So why aren’t people headed outdoors? The answer is easy: it’s easier to stay home and fiddle with that remote or mouse. It’s really too bad though, because the West’s backcountry can’t be televised; it must be experienced. Tube viewers really don’t know what they’re missing.
Jeff Osgood is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Niiwot, Colorado, where he's a freelance writer and stay-at-home father of four.