Choose not to go boldly outdoors

  • Cartoon: Parking lot with sign saying nat'l park - JB Day/Las Vegas Revie

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I don't hike often in Elk Meadow anymore, the county park near my home in Evergreen, Colo. I don't hike often in Boulder's open space parks, either. And I don't hike any more in Rocky Mountain National Park. Everywhere I look our local and national wild places are crowded with ecology-minded recreationists, and I am trying not to be one of them, anymore. I do not want to be one of those who force land managers to enlarge parking areas, harden trails, install grandiose outhouses and picnic tables, and on the busiest summer weekends, engage a cop to manage the cars that build up around a park's perimeter.

Neighboring Elk Meadow is so thick with hikers, joggers, riders, dogwalkers and mountain bikers on the weekends that they jockey for position on the trails. Inevitably one party or another is forced off pathways and into the wildflowers or wetlands. Of course the trails must then be widened - again - to accommodate larger throngs.

If our backwoods ethic continues to limit itself to staying on trails and carrying out litter, we will only be beating around so many bushes. The point is that to really do some good Out There, we who love the land to death need to give it a rest. The concept isn't new; resting or rotating land use is common to other users, from farmers and gardeners to fishers and hunters.

Before hikers and other wildland recreationists became a kind of glorified livestock trampling the ground, environmental organizations encouraged people to go into the backcountry so that strong political constituencies for nature preservation would form. But these days, going into wilderness is not the best way to save it.

The most conscious attempts to give productive lands a rest were codified 3,000 years ago. The word "sabbatical" first occurs in the Biblical book of Leviticus: Recall that it did not mean the paid vacation from teaching that college professors take every seventh year.

Rather, a sabbatical referred to what the ancient Jews observed on their lands after six years of cultivation and intense use. Agricultural land was granted "a sabbath of complete rest" in the seventh year. Some Bible scholars contend that strict adherence to sabbaticals for several centuries enhanced the productivity of the arid Judean lands to the point that they could be described as flowing with milk and honey.

Yet after all these millennia, outdoor recreationists cling to a religious belief in an open season, year after year. Access to public lands, we proclaim just as stridently as ranchers, loggers and hunters, is our supreme, unfettered right.

In the true spirit of Western individualism, we ought not wait for the bureaucrats to tell us where and when we cannot go; we ought to take the responsibility of choosing not to go somewhere ourselves.

Heading deeper into less traveled backcountry is no answer to local crowding, since it is only a matter of time before the rest of the world follows.

It is time that recreationists support a nationwide system of rest-rotations for our parks and natural areas. Apart from the beneficial rest the land would get, such a system might also strengthen our political position when we petition for grazing allotment reductions, or lower timber harvests.

The Sabbatical for the Land Society costs nothing to join. You can become a member by not going to Elk Meadow next weekend. Or to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Dyan Zaslowsky writes articles and books in Evergreen, Colorado.

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