We're making a new claim on nature

  Dear HCN,

Many thanks for Allen Best's excellent feature story on the White River National Forest Plan (HCN, 1/17/00: STOP - A national forest tries to rein in recreation).

On a related topic, a conference held in December in Snowmass, Colo., provided in-depth dialogue on many of the issues at play in the White River plan. At this Recreation Capacity Congress, sponsored by Colorado State University, 550 land managers, outfitters, outdoor educators, mountain bikers, motorized trail users and environmentalists debated topics such as outdoor recreationists' entitlement to the land vs. the rights of nature. How do the recreation needs of inner-city youth stack up against the time-honored value of solitude, and, who "owns' public lands? Is the wilderness concept still relevant to modern demographics or is wilderness an outdated "white male ethic'?

The conference seemed to demonstrate three emerging trends: First, nature was defined as a social rather than as a biological or utilitarian construct. For example, terms such as biodiversity, grazing and logging were giving way to terms such as "input-output models," "supply-demand," "benefits-based management" and "recreation market segmentation." Second, agencies such as the Forest Service, National Park Service and BLM were being recast as recreation "providers' rather than as land stewards. And finally, the conference was dominated by a new class of recreationists, outdoor educators, tour guides and trail advocacy groups, characterized by a quest for access and a need for nature to serve, no longer as a source of products, but as a source of human experience.

Concepts voiced at the conference were a far cry from the conservation ethic of the 20th century. Aldo Leopold envisioned a man as a "plain member" of the "land-community," while here public-lands users were termed "customers," "clients' and "consumers." Instead of the wilderness ethic espoused by John Muir, David Brower and Dave Foreman, public lands were seen as "providing customer services' and "filling market niches." And the Deep Ecology notion of nature as having an intrinsic right to exist for its own sake was replaced by the notion of nature as a "recreational setting" for human experience.

To someone steeped in the 20th-century ethic, the whole conference seemed slightly unreal. And, in light of these shifting definitions of conservation, it is all the more heartening to see the White River National Forest maintaining the values of land stewardship and ecosystem health.

Roz McClellan
Nederland, Colorado

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