Adventure travel vs. conservation

A conversation with outdoor entrepreneur Bill Bryan.

  • Bill Bryan poses for a photo at the "M" trailhead in Bozeman, Montana, where he often goes hiking ... when he's not out trekking exotic locales worldwide.

    Erik Petersen
  • Bill Bryan, center, with sons Joe, left, and Scott, scout "family friendly" backcountry adventures in the Wind River Mountains for Off the Beaten Path, 1990.

    Pam Bryan

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Bryan The whole idea that if you're coming out here, you need a guide who isn't just a fishing guide or a hunting guide, was new when we started Off the Beaten Path. We hired local naturalist guides for trips to Yellowstone and Patagonia, and so on.

HCN Were conservation groups selling similar trips?

Bryan The Sierra Club had its own program, and still does – moderately priced trips led by local Sierra Club members who are not necessarily professional experts. Other national groups have travel programs where they contract out to an Off the Beaten Path-type organization – trips mainly for donors or just for their membership. That became a fairly big deal for Off the Beaten Path, running trips for World Wildlife Fund and the National Parks and Conservation Association. A few other companies got into it, too.

Lindblad Expeditions does trips in small boats, maybe 70 to 120 passengers, in Alaska and the Columbia River and Baja whale-watching, and recently it merged with National Geographic so most of their work now is under the banner Lindblad National Geographic. Sven Lindblad, the founder of that company, has a real environmental agenda, so those trips have great naturalist guides; they've even done trips to the Arctic and Antarctica, taking influential people into the ice regions to observe climate change. Natural Habitat Adventures, out of Boulder, Colo., has a relationship with World Wildlife Fund. Backroads, out of Berkeley, Calif., offers conservation-minded biking and hiking trips. Other companies specialize in bird-watching trips. Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, out of Bozeman, helps qualified travelers volunteer to do research in the outdoors. Smaller groups like Montana Audubon offer local trips for their members. There are other companies doing it too, now.

HCN And this is a good trend?

Bryan Yes. In order to deal with these environmental issues, you have to get outdoors, and you can't think just about your own back yard, you have to think about the larger context. Travel helps with that. Most of these conservation-minded travel companies attract customers who, even if they're not members of conservation groups, they're looking for a learning experience. ... You'd be surprised how many people come out here without a clue. They want to come to a dude ranch, and they ask about the ranch's spa program and whether there's a swimming pool, how fancy are the meals, and can they do a bit of horseback riding or fishing in a pond that's stocked? They want their amenities to come with them.

HCN On any conservation-minded trips, you think adventure travel should engage the local cultures respectfully?

Bryan Everywhere we go, travel should be accountable to the local communities, and accountable to the environment. On fishing trips to Patagonia, many American adventure-travel companies bring their fishing guides from this country, instead of hiring local guides in Chile, because the American guides speak English better and know the needs of the American travelers. Companies doing 30 bus trips per year in Yellowstone bring in guides from Santa Barbara and Connecticut, because that's also cheaper and easier than hiring local guides. To encourage more accountability, Off the Beaten Path and Lindblad and a few other companies created the Adventure Collection, an organization advocating for all companies to be "deeply respectful of our travel destinations" (according to the "travel ethic" posted on while minimizing our impact. We call for travelers to engage with local communities, to help sustain them, and for educating travelers on the best cultural and ecological practices.

Those that try to be accountable will do it to a certain extent, always with the profit margin in mind. It's easy to develop trips to see polar bears around Churchill (on the shore of Canada's Hudson Bay); lots of people want to do that. It's much more difficult to develop trips to see something like the black-footed ferret, an endangered species on the Northern Plains, where you might not even see one ferret. Or trips to see Yellowstone wolves, you can't guarantee you'll see one wolf. People want certainty. ... The marriage of the adventure travel world and the conservation world has come a long ways in the last 25 years, and it's probably going to get better, but there has to be some accountability to more than the bottom line. My feeling is, you can do both.

This story is part of an April 2014 special issue of the HCN magazine devoted to travel in the West.

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