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Time for stronger action to combat overuse

Can educating recreators protect places like this from destructive behavior? (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

Overuse is the word of the summer here in the Adirondacks. The influx of people feels unprecedented for a number of reasons. Parking areas are being pushed well past their maximum; search-and-rescue numbers are up; campsites and lean-tos are overrun and covered in trash. But despite all this, one would assume that the people coming here for a trip into the mountains are doing so because they value being in wilderness. In the variety of wilderness education roles I’ve occupied over the last decade, that has always been the notion I’ve clung to — the one that gave me hope.

I’d venture to say that this is the dominant logic for many wilderness educators. For those with direct contact with the public, like summit stewards, that means assuming most people who negatively impact wild places do so because they’re ignorant of best practice. It seems patently absurd to think that anyone would want to do damage to a place they go to feel awe or relaxation.

As such, we rely on this love as the launching point for any education. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, the dominant resource for conservation education in the country, teaches educators a technique called “The Authority of the Resource” to help inform those who are acting harmfully. This involves using the appeal of the wilderness itself to the individual involved as a call to protect it. The technique has some requirements, which I’ll list below in their words:

“1: Give the person the benefit of the doubt — It could be that someone else caused the impact and people will be more responsive if you show them consideration and tact.

“2: Build rapport with the person you’re approaching — Get to know the person. They may be new to traveling and camping in the outdoors and do not have experience minimizing their impact.

“3: Stand side by side — Never confront someone eye to eye. Stand off to the side so the problem is out in front of both of you.

“4: Educate — teach people the reasons why their impacts affect the environment.

“5: Give an alternative.”

This technique was developed for a few reasons. One was to soften interactions between the public and educators with legal authority (like DEC forest rangers). The second was to give educators without legal authority a way of approaching individuals who are “leaving a trace” that doesn’t turn confrontational. This could mean a summit steward, or it could mean any concerned member of the outdoor recreation community.

It relies on the educator to be able to read their subject, to try to appeal to something they value. It could mean using terminology like “to protect this land for your grandkids to enjoy” or “so you can catch fish here again in the future” that both appeals to people’s personal attachment to the space and gives them a reason to think about their impact without triggering a reaction from those who feel like their freedom is being impeded.

A recent post by a Summit Steward here has led me to conclude that this approach might not be enough. People’s ignorance is not always something they’re intent on remedying, and now there is a vocal minority of people who expect personal exception to all the rules. Too many people now act with wanton ignorance or destructiveness, as a way of voicing their opposition to all forms of reasonable and constructive civic interaction.

So what do we do, as members of the outdoor recreation community with no legal authority, about people who are actively and intentionally destroying progress we’ve made toward protecting wilderness? How do we cope with people’s obstinate, apolitical and nihilistic impulses in a place that requires a collective effort to preserve? Can we expect it to get any better as the pandemic continues and we near another horribly divisive election?

I must say, hearing some of these stories has frustrated me. These are places I cherish so deeply, places that are now under siege from well-meaning visitors by the simple accident of heavy traffic. There is no room to tolerate people who are acting maliciously towards them. But, as is the case with any struggle, the urge to meet hateful behavior with hatred can only lead to a perpetual downward spiral where all acts, sacrifices and casualties are justified if they seem to lead toward what either side perceives as “victory.”

Despite reports of such enraging and discouraging interactions, it’s important to hope that most people still want to do what’s best. If you’re reading this and thinking, “What can I do?” consider how you can be an educator when you’re recreating in the wilderness. Though it can be hard to swallow our frustration when we see people acting ignorantly, we stand the best chance of changing their behavior if we follow some of the advice above regarding education. I’ve seen it work hundreds of times.

This individual action, while a fine starting point, isn’t enough, though. For those of us who already pursue this goal and who are feeling increasingly isolated and frustrated as we see more and more damage done to the Adirondacks, something more needs to happen. While legal authorities and land managers work to determine the best course of action for the future of the Forest Preserve, I think those of us concerned need to develop an intentional network of community stewards — one that pulls together the groups that already exist and serves to unite those of us who have invested so much in this wilderness already.

A network or forum like this would help to streamline community stewardship efforts, offer support for those who are actively working toward this end, and give a space to vent frustration about things we’re seeing out on the trail without letting it loose and losing opportunities to educate. While those of us without legal authority may not be able to ethically prevent intentional, malicious actions against our local ecosystems, we can certainly show our support and our presence here if we act in unison.

If this idea interests you or if such a forum already exists that I’m not aware of, please send me an email or find me online.

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