How do we get outdoor enthusiasts to protect the places they play?
Several years ago, Sonoran Institute founder and long time conservationist Luther Propst was mountain biking on the Lunch Loops in Grand Junction, Colorado, when he had a major conservation realization. He was riding in the company of two friends, both conservation professionals, who were arguing fervently about a proposed wilderness designation for the Hidden Gems area of Colorado. The designation, which one friend had supported via the conservation organization behind the proposal, would protect wildlife habitat and natural resources. However, it would also exclude mountain bikers—mechanized travel of any kind is not allowed in designated wilderness. Cyclists, including Propst’s other riding partner, hadn’t been involved in early conversations about the wilderness proposal and were fighting hard to derail the designation so they could keep access to a favorite riding area.
Propst was deeply bothered by his friends’ feuding, and by the greater division that lay at the heart of it. “There was this public, very negative, kind of ugly battle going on between people whose values were very similar,” he said. In Propst’s mind, these would-be allies—both of whom wanted to protect the wild places they loved—should have been working together rather than pitted against one another. He realized that there had to be a better way to get the people who wanted to protect places for recreation, and those who wanted to protect places for conservation, to work together as allies in causes they both supported.
Nearly a decade later, Propst’s idea culminated into action. In fall 2014, he participated in a roundtable discussion at the conservation- and recreation-centered SHIFT festival in Jackson, Wyoming, that focused on soothing tensions between public land user groups and management. Then, in June 2015, he was among a group of 15 people gathered at the Murie Center in the heart of Grand Teton National Park for the Conservation and Recreation Summit—a two-day collaborative meeting designed to establish a framework to actually put that goal into practice. A variety of land users and managers including folks from the National Park System, US Forest Service, and US Fish and Wildlife Service along with a handful of conservation and recreation groups attended the summit.
“It’s important to have the hunters and the climbers and the horsemen and the skiers and backpackers sitting down with the environmentalists and conservation advocates, the organizations that are cultivating the next generation of stewards, as well as the land managers,” said Christian Beckwith, a renowned climber and director of SHIFT, who attended both meetings.
The group looked to the well-established North American Model for Wildlife Conservation for guidance. That model, developed in the early twentieth century, operates on the premise that wildlife is a public resource and should be managed for public use in perpetuity. In order to achieve that, the model outlines seven principles, including that harvested wildlife cannot be wasted or sold commercially, that science must inform decision making, and that all citizens have equal access to hunting and fishing. It also established a self-perpetuating funding system by which taxes and license fees help to cover the costs of professional, science-based management. The model has been incredibly successful in guiding the actions of hunting and fishing throughout the past century and is credited with preventing the decimation of wildlife populations around the continent.
The document conceived at the Murie Center during the summit—The Principles for Advancing Outdoor Recreation and Conservation—hinges on similar fundamentals. The six principles outline the following: Well-stewarded public land and water are central to the American land legacy. Conservation and recreation depend on each other for protection and use of public lands in the US. Those who use public lands and water have a responsibility to do so ethically and with respect for the lands and other users. Public education and proactive, professional management are essential for land care and recreation opportunities. Biological, social, and physical sciences are necessary to inform management decisions. And, similar to that of the North American Model for Wildlife Conservation, stable long-term funding sources need to be established, with the emphasis on new and creative sources to bolster funding from government agencies and conservation groups. Ideally, the amount of funding will match the economic and public benefits associated with outdoor recreation and healthy environments.
Before the principles’ public release at the second annual SHIFT Festival in October 2015, a variety of associated recreation, conservation, and land management community members engaged in a comment and discussion period. Those involved in the document’s creation—including approximately 70 stakeholders total—hope it will be a guiding light for the future of conservation and recreation in the United States. With these principles in place, hard decisions about recreation and conservation management have the potential to be nuanced, collaborative, and inclusive for the betterment of the public lands and the people who use them.
“We’re in a much better position to effect outcomes on issues that we all care about when we’re unified. [These principles] help us to see one another as natural allies in the common cause,” Beckwith said.
With the principles now in the public eye, the goal is to spread the message far and wide through popular media, public forums, and social media. While it’s too early to tell just how the principles will be received and implemented, Propst and others involved stand by the document as a necessary development among those who work and play in the outdoors.
“I’m committed to the idea that outdoor recreation and conservation have way more in common than not, and that conservation needs to work closely with people involved in outdoor recreation because that’s who the conservation advocates are,” he says. “This a call for recognizing that we’re all in this together.”
By Manasseh Franklin
Manasseh Franklin is pursuing a master of fine arts in creative nonfiction writing and environment and natural resources at the University of Wyoming. She has reported for magazines including Afar, Rock and Ice, Trail Runner, and others.