Backpacker beware: don't boldly go where you don't belong

  I was dismayed when I read Backpacker magazine recently. I worked for the National Park Service for eight years, and I’ve been a guide in Yellowstone National Park. I know there are some places we can hike to and camp at safely, and some places we should leave alone.

But now we have Backpacker magazine, which boasts that it is the world’s first GPS-enabled magazine, using Global Positioning Systems to reveal the coordinates of wild places. In a note from editor Jonathan Dorn in the April issue we’re told: "When you turn to our special Glen Canyon and Yellowstone maps, you’ll see little dots marking key points of interest along the routes. Those dots are attached in turn to GPS coordinates. Plot them on a topo or download them to a GPS unit, and you can boldly go where practically no one has gone before."

In Yellowstone National Park, grizzlies have gone these ways before, and they need solitude and space to survive in an increasingly crowded and hemmed-in world. Letting the world know about these seldom-visited places just might invite disaster.

Of course, we all need to know the basics of a place. We expect to find articles in a magazine for backcountry hikers that are packed with information about where a trailhead is located, the wildlife we can expect to see, and the special regulations that might apply, as well as dangers (think grizzlies) we need to know about.

But the Backpacker approach took a different tack: It deliberately sent tourists into extremely remote places of Yellowstone National Park, far from the required designated campsites. What’s more, the selected destinations seemed to go through some of the most dangerous and sensitive areas in the park.

Just out of curiosity, I called the park’s backcountry office and spoke with staffer Anita Varley, to see if she and others were even aware of the April issue. She was well aware of it. In the weeks that passed since publication, her office had been busy with damage control.

Varley wrote a three-page letter to Backpacker, spelling out her objections: three errors that put backpackers in Yellowstone on three illegal routes, the failure to mention at least five potential dangers that visitors might encounter, and the fact that the magazine neglected to warn readers that their very presence in these remote areas could displace grizzly bears or cause damage to geothermal areas.

Varley opened her lengthy letter to the editor by warning that "Backpacker magazine’s lack of fact-checking could lead to your readers getting injured or arrested unnecessarily." Instead of sending backpackers to fragile parts of Yellowstone, she said, "an appeal for their protection would have been appropriate."

Protecting places by urging people to stay away from them probably doesn’t sell well as a message to magazine readers. But sharing secret places can bring unexpected results. Thanks to today’s GPS technology, hikers following the routes recommended by magazines may find lots of other people just like them, making formerly remote places crowded and "loved to death."

Varley said one region in Yellowstone was recently profiled by two sources, resulting in a "horrific increase" in visitors. It is no secret that the budget for Yellowstone and other national parks can’t begin to fund the job required; when millions of people descend on Yellowstone or Glen Canyon, overworked rangers are hard put to keep everybody out of trouble.

The executive editor of Backpacker told Yellowstone managers that he would "print corrections where appropriate." That’s nice. But whether that turns people away from grizzly areas or saves anyone from physical injury because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time won’t be known until this summer’s hiking season is over.

Sean Neilson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). Based in Gustavus, Alaska, he is currently working as a guide and freelance photographer in Glacier Bay National Park. He worked as a Yellowstone Park ranger for four years.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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