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Know the West

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Arguments over backcountry access are often framed within an outdated environmental ethics, generally over the value of nature.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.