The road to wilderness is paved with outdoor magazines

  • Outside and Backpacker magazines


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, I came, I saw, I wrote a guidebook.

When Larry Burke first started Outside magazine, he named it after his boat Mariah, meaning "winds of change."

That was in the mid-1970s, right around the time Patagonia started making jackets out of stuff that looked like carpet. Right around the time swarms of young people were discovering the great outdoors.

Once he gained media-savvy, Burke ditched the obscure name. But like many first hunches, the magazine's first name proved something of an omen. In an 18-year publishing adventure, Outside has managed to ride the crest of a cultural wave it also helps propel.

"My hunch is that more people are going into the outdoors than ever before," says Greg Cliburn, an executive editor at Outside's main office in Santa Fe, N.M. "I'm sure that includes designated wilderness. That creates demand and a need for more information. Then that information puts the seed in people's minds to use the outdoors more."

With 475,000 subscribers, Outside is a powerful force. "Welcome OUTSIDE!" begins one of the magazine's letters seeking advertising accounts. "It's where more and more Americans are spending their personal time. ... OUTSIDE's readers are the trendsetters of this booming marketplace. Why? Because they do more, travel more, socialize more and consequently spend more."

Slick photo spreads direct readers to the top 10 this-or-that. Beautiful young people play amid breathtaking scenery. "Just-do-it" ads jumpstart the adrenaline: "Introducing the North Face Kichatna, the first extreme weather Gore-Tex 3-Ply rapid assault jacket, specifically designed for the pursuit of fear." Outside is a seductive source of vicarious thrills.

Occasionally, the monthly runs destination pieces tempered with advice about caring for the land, or even straightforward environmental stories. It routinely wins magazine awards; readers who use the old Playboy line, "I subscribe for the great articles," aren't hiding behind a half-truth.

So what's the fuss?

Anger directed at magazines like Outside may spring from a sense that its readers - mostly young urban professionals - don't recreate in the West or elsewhere so much as they "buy" outdoor experiences.

As Moab newspaper publisher Jim Stiles puts it, the lycra set seeks speed and efficiency in the outback.

Idaho writer Stephen Lyons says Outside's flippant approach prompts its readers to treat areas outside their cities and suburbs as scenic backdrops for their narcissism. Between the lines the message is: This land is for human consumption.

John Viehman, executive editor of Backpacker, one of Outside's competitors with a circulation of 240,000, echoes that reproach: "We don't see the outdoors as a place to compete. For us, wilderness is a cathedral, not just another place to have a party."

How does Outside respond?

Editor Greg Cliburn says he's not so sure Outside encourages people to compete in the wilderness. "Mountain-biking does have a high potential to be destructive, but isn't it better than gambling or drinking? Let's put things in perspective."

Cliburn asks: "Is the only way to save the natural world to ignore it? The less readers know about the wilderness, the less they'll care. We don't talk about places people shouldn't go by law, but public land is public land. I'm not going to stand around making moral decisions for other people."

In his seven years with Outside, Cliburn says he doesn't recall repressing a story because it contained information about fragile places. Editors don't have an across-the-board policy on how to deal with sensitive areas, but they're not likely to cover those areas in the magazine's destinations section, says Cliburn. "Instead, we'll put in a blurb about a trail in danger, or something like that."

As for Sierra magazine - the publication for 536,000 Sierra Club members - its editors also promote getting out there, though they steer away from travel stories about overused places, says editor Reed McManus.

Backpacker's Viehman says editors there frequently discuss what to do about sensitive places, and even ran a story on the dilemma, though no set policy exists. When Backpacker started 21 years ago, the staff routinely changed place names; then he says they realized the policy was unrealistic. More recently, editors have changed names of Anasazi ruins; other articles omitted details such as the exact location of Edward Abbey's grave.

"Do I tell people about public lands?" Outside's Cliburn asks. "Yeah, they'll find it out from someone else anyway. If Outside is the access point, then they'll be getting information too about how to save that resource."

Peter Heller, an adventure-travel writer who sometimes changes place names in his stories, calls that argument the drug dealer defense: "It's like saying, "If I don't sell this crack, someone else will. And, it's better coming from me because I'll give them a pair of basketball shoes every now and then." "

Whether the message is better coming from one source or another, publicity can be the key to saving wild places, says Sierra magazine's McManus. The Sierra Club organized outings to Alaska in the late 1970s to gain support for the 1980 Alaska Lands Act, and McManus says the club is presently leading trips into Utah wilderness study areas to train activists lobbying for a stronger state wilderness bill.

"You may choose to keep a place secret, but when the mining and timber companies find out, you've got another choice to make," he says. "Many places are unknown to recreationists until conservationists get involved."

But to Stiles, one of the worst aspects of the growing consumption of wilderness is its hypocrisy. After the Bureau of Land Management killed a cow hanging out in a wilderness study area (see page 10), at the request of hikers led by writer Steve Allen, Stiles says, "I can't help but wonder just who will cause more damage to Chimney Canyon: the lonely cow who wandered its length for more than a decade, or the hordes of hikers who will read Mr. Allen's guidebook and flock to the canyon for the '90s version of solitude."

Stiles, writing in his monthly Canyon Country Zephyr, concludes: "If ultimately, the hikers do more damage to the canyon than the cow, will Mr. Allen be willing to be dispatched as well?"

The tell-or-don't-tell debate is far from over. Outside's Cliburn says he's used to receiving angry letters after the magazine publishes a "Top 10" destination piece or a story about some great new wild area.

But those letters usually complain that the magazine spoiled someone's enjoyment of a once-secret spot. He says he rarely gets letters saying, "I followed your advice about place X and it's trashed. I think everyone, including me, should stay away to protect the land."

"I would take a lesson from that," says Cliburn.

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