Outdoor outfitters can’t stay quiet on climate change

The industry is short-changing millions of visitors at a time when dialogue is needed.

 

I’ve worked in outdoor tourism for a quarter-century, as a guide or through a permitting agency, mostly in Alaska. I’ve worked with kayaking, hunting, fishing and hiking companies, and dozens of tour boats and cruise ships. People working in the industry radiate a genuine love for the natural world, and guides actively connect people to their public lands, often in life-changing ways.

But often I see the passion fizzle when it comes to climate change. And if the silence I hear on climate translates across the West, the industry is short-changing millions of visitors at a time when dialogue is needed. Of course, there are plenty of reasons for holding back. Bringing up climate change can be a downer for clients simply hoping to fish a fabled river or see their first glacier. Scaring the kids or getting crosswise with Dad’s political views are also sure ways to blow your gratuity.

Hypocrisy plays a role, too. We all burn fossil fuel on our dates with nature, especially in Alaska, where we cross great distances to raft, kayak or camp in the wild. Whether aboard a tour boat in Glacier Bay or on a bus along the Grand Canyon, the engine is a droning reminder of our complicity in changing the climate.

The issue’s complexity is also daunting. Distilling carbon cycles or climate patterns into campfire small talk isn’t easy, and keeping abreast of fast-moving research takes time. Profit comes into it, as well: Companies want happy clients, and bosses may discourage guides from discussing anything they consider political, not scientific. 

So avoidance is easy. But on the other hand, speaking up is bold, and boldness in the name of the land is deeply rooted in the outdoor professions.

Take John Muir, who found rapture when he wandered into the Sierra in 1869. Soon he was guiding hikes, sharing his passion with whoever would listen. His growing reputation attracted Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Roosevelt and others, and he certainly wasn’t quiet about the damage he saw grazing do.

In the 1950s, David Brower used rafting trips on Colorado’s Yampa River to alert people to a dam proposal. In the 1980s, The Boat Company and other tour boat operators in Alaska exposed destructive logging on the Tongass National Forest.

Muir’s work led to new national parks. Brower helped stop a dam. In Alaska, old-growth forests escaped the cut. Today, we enjoy these and other places because outdoor guides shared their love of the land. 

Discussing climate change is also great natural history. Warming has accelerated the reproductive cycle of the bark beetle, for example, and we can clearly see the links between less snow, fewer fish and more disastrous wildfire. These stories are intriguing in their own right, and they also help us tell the land’s story.

26073276911_4dd6cb72f8_k-jpg
Byron Glacier, Alaska

In Alaska, retreating glaciers help tell the story. What’s happening before our eyes is visually stunning, and also fascinating geology: Our transport of carbon from ground to sky has altered the atmosphere much like a comet’s impact, triggering planetary warming that collapses glacial systems. The short-term result is Genesis, with new fiords bursting to life with plants, marine mammals, migrating birds and new human traditions. It’s an amazing moment for the nature geek in every guide.

But there’s another angle to consider: self-preservation. The changes occurring to rivers, glaciers, forests and snow awaken economic and even existential concerns for tour operators. Raising the issue — the way the ski industry has with its “Sustainable Slopes” campaign — may carry a bottom-line benefit. Obviously, climate discussion need not dominate a tour, and initiating “The Talk” is not necessary for every trip or every client. But silence doesn’t work, either.

Changing the industry is a shared responsibility. Companies must provide training, resources and encouragement, while guides need to apply their natural creativity to raise the issue without raising hackles. And what if the guide is silent? Clients should feel free to ask questions; doing so could improve the quality of the tour.

The biggest role belongs to the agencies that steward the land and issue the permits. A shining example is the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in Juneau, Alaska, where the namesake glacier is shrinking from the scenery. Instead of denial, Forest Service officials shifted to a climate-change focus. The center’s 550,000 annual visitors, mostly from cruise ships, now experience unabashed, science-based climate education. So do their tour guides on bikes, rafts, kayaks and buses.

Similar openness occurs at Kenai Fiords National Park and the Chugach National Forest visitor center at Portage Glacier, near Anchorage. At each, agencies improve the experience of the guided public, with positive reception. They are good examples to consider while leading the public on outdoor adventures this summer.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes from Girdwood, Alaska.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Job Announcement: Executive Administrative Assistant (Part-Time) Announcement date: October 27, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: November...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Job purpose The Executive Director is a proven leader with demonstrated and sustained experience managing people, budgets, fundraising, and contract compliance who guides a well-established...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a Communications Associate to support the advancement of GYC's mission by working closely with the Communications Coordinator and program staff...
  • MONTANA DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure significant...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...