Skiing and snowmobiling are as natural as the weather

With human impacts felt everywhere, we need a new environmental ethic.

 

This time of year, two distinct groups make their way to the Rocky Mountain backcountry: the skiers and the snowmobilers. In the mountain passes of Colorado, you’ll find ski tracks on one side of the highway and snowmobile tracks on the other. Because of their differing approaches to wild spaces — one group seeking quiet and solitude, the other chasing thrills and covering ground — they have a long history of mutual animosity. Given the climate crisis, however, debates over public-land use, recreation or wildlife conservation are not as useful as the insights the discussion itself might give us.

Arguments over backcountry access are often framed within an outdated environmental ethics, generally over the value of nature. Inside the climate crisis, however, it’s our relationship to technology that warrants examination. We need an ethics to match our technological prowess, one of responsibility that understands humans as a part of nature, whether they’re on skis or snow machines. I come from a family of “slednecks” (my aunt and uncle were competitive racers and hill-climbers), but I also enjoy backcountry skiing. A machine can carry you deep into the natural sublime as well as a pair of skis can. Both of these are merely forms of recreation, and neither provides a useful ethics for the Anthropocene.

Snowmobiling on the Bering Sea.
Paul Souders

We humans lack an ethics to match our ingenuity. Our technology is so powerful that it has created the illusion of our separation from nature, undermining our ethical approach to the world around us. When Aldo Leopold, the godfather of conservation, compares nature to a machine and us to people tinkering with it, saying that we should not take apart what we can’t put back together, he underscores the problem.

We need to understand ourselves — and everything we build — as part of nature. Strachan Donnelley, who founded Chicago’s Center for Humans and Nature, a think tank for environmental ethics, suggests an “ethics of responsibility” borne from this understanding. “In a time of overweening and collective technological power, with its indefinite global and temporal reach, we are ethically enjoined to take care and be cautious,” he writes. “Human powers of action dangerously outstrip capacities for knowledge and wisdom. We are to do nothing that would throw evolved man and nature disastrously off balance, threaten their creative being, and thwart their emergent complexity.”

Consider my Aunt Ellen, who keeps a bird book and binoculars close at hand, who packed horses into Wyoming’s Wind River Range for a living, and who won a world championship in snowmobile drag racing on a sled she built with her husband, my Uncle Ward. In Aunt Ellen’s heyday as a rider, the machine was an extension of her will, and its track and paddles would dig into the snow and propel her through powder, so that she was floating, almost flying, through the mountains, as much a part of nature as the snow and the stone beneath.

To see this as natural calls for an ethics beyond nature, one that acknowledges technology but moves us toward what Donnelley calls “purposiveness.” If all we do is a part of nature, then we have responsibilities. Humans have evolved — with all our technological power — as “nature’s most significant actors.” Because of this, we have as much responsibility for the world as a parent has for a newborn. “This paradigm of responsibility for our own offspring is the model for the responsibility for the care of all of life and nature,” Donnelley writes.

This responsibility demands better ethics. Rather than debate whether snowmobilers value nature as much as skiers do, we might better spend the time in search of an ethical approach that encompasses technology. The next time I yank a starter rope, or turn an ignition key, or buckle up a polymer plastic ski boot, I might well consider how natural this is, then take responsibility for the consequences.

Brian Calvert is the editor-in-chief of High Country News. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • SOUTHWEST REWILDING ADVOCATE
    WildEarth Guardians is seeking a full-time advocate in our Wild Places Program to advance a new paradigm of forest management and protection based on the...