The New Golden Rule of Playing Outside: Place First

Conservationists and recreationists are supposed to be fighting for the same thing—instead, they're fighting over it. Illustration: Jasu Hu

Even Sierra Club-approved activities can have disastrous effects on the natural places we revere. And that's led to a fracture between two should-be allies: recreationists and conservationists.

Earlier this season, ski tracks appeared on Josies Ridge above Jackson, Wyoming. Ski tracks around Jackson usually aren’t news. But the Forest Service closes Josies and other areas to recreationists from December through April to give deer and elk a break from human disturbance during the winter. Signs announce the closures.

One week later, skiers poached Josies again.

When we play in the mountains and forests, we think we’re simply having fun. (Leaving no trace! Communing with nature!) But whether we’re in closed or open areas, studies show that even Sierra Club-approved activities like hiking, cross-country skiing, and bird watching can negatively affect the environment more than you'd think. Take research in Boulder that discovered a roughly 100-yard “death zone” for songbirds on both sides of a trail, as one scientist put it, pointing to low nesting success and lower populations. Moose increased their movement by 33 percent, burning more energy, after encountering skiers, a study in Scandinavia found. In one not-yet-published survey of 218 studies that looked at the effects of recreation on wildlife, researchers found more evidence for impacts by non-motorized activities than by motorized ones.

Nature once had plenty of elbowroom. Today natural places—those places we like to play in—are increasingly squeezed by climate change and a booming human population. And even our well-meaning recreation can tighten the thumbscrews. A 2015 study estimated that the world’s protected areas—most of them in Europe and North America—see a whopping eight billion visits annually. Some form of recreation, from nature walks to rafting and beyond, is permitted in more than 94 percent of protected areas as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In the United States, the number of people who participated in day hiking increased by nearly 800 percent between 1960 and 2000.

Make no mistake: this is no "save-the-planet, kill-yourself" rant. Outside has written about how standing knee-deep in powder on a high ridge is a salve for mind and body. We need more of that, as we spend our days bent in prayer over our iPhones. But it’s also true that we’re an outsized presence on the land, even when we head there alone and with good intentions. “Cumulatively, we are having effects on those places,” says Linda Merigliano, the recreation program manager for three ranger districts of the Bridger-Teton National Forest around Jackson.

The outdoors community has been slow to recognize and concede those effects. Last year, I wrote a similar piece for the New York Times that provoked dozens of comments about how humans are just as much a part of nature as the wildlife that these restrictions are trying to protect. One such post read:

Nature is not the movie set consisting of a slice of conditions in a moment chosen arbitrarily. It changes. Humans in some form have been part of it for millions of years. We step gently where we go, on the land we paid for. We respect breeding season. But we also believe we are allowed into this slice of nature we are part of.

That’s true, but we also need to reflect more deeply on the impact we have when we go into the woods to play, and adjust what we do.

We need a new Golden Rule for the Great Outdoors: Place first.

This simply means that nature’s needs come before our recreation ones. A vigorous, healthy natural world props up all the things we love: mountain biking, trail running, the moose we glimpse while backcountry skiing. Let’s agree to take care of nature before we demand our own satisfaction. What we love to do naturally will flow from that. More importantly, it will keep flowing.

 “If we destroy the place,” says Merigliano, “nothing else matters.”


Unfortunately, I’d argue that we’re failing at that right now.

In some cases, recreationists are trying to introduce new activities on protected land. A group called the Sustainable Trails Coalition is lobbying for a new bill that would tinker with the 1964 Wilderness Act to give local forest supervisors discretion to open wilderness trails to mountain bikers. “Mechanical transport” is explicitly proscribed in the act, but knobby-tire fans insist this doesn’t apply to mountain bikes. (The group’s president, Ted Stroll, told me the proposed bill also would allow more liberal use of chainsaws for trail maintenance in wilderness, where mechanized devices are prohibited unless the federal agency determines them necessary for wilderness stewardship or emergencies.)

Sometimes, we’re tone-deaf about how we’re supposed to approach wild places. You may recall the fallout when ultrarunning legend Scott Jurek beat the record on the Appalachian Trail last summer and celebrated with booze and 16 people atop Maine’s Mt. Katahdin. The park, which lies within a state-designated wilderness area, has been wrestling with how to maintain its wilderness character, even as groups like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy are trying to encourage use of the AT. So when the director of Baxter State Park issued citations to Jurek for splashes of champagne on the rocks and a too-big group on the summit, he was doing his job. He wasn’t some wet-blanket bureaucrat; he was working to protect nature. Yet it was the director, not Jurek, who caught the most flak from the incident.

These calls to bring more sports or activities to public land can sometime align recreationists with people who have the opposite agenda.

Out West, packrafters enlisted Wyoming Representative Cynthia Lummis, a Republican who’s no fan of public lands, to help pass a law ordering Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks to do a feasibility study of recreational paddling. Environmentalists fear moves like this could lead to trouble down the road. “Legislating special access to a national park by a specific user group is a bad precedent,” Bart Melton of the National Parks Conservation Association told Frederick Reimers in Mountain magazine. “Not only for Yellowstone, but for all our parks.”

I’m not anti-bike or anti-packrafting; I’ve done both activities for this magazine. What bothers me about these examples is the loss of perspective they represent. These packrafters and mountain bikers are focused on doing what they want, where they want. When they can’t, they often use words like “discrimination” instead of asking whether more for them is really what’s right for the land. If those who say they love the land the most don’t think restraint applies to them, who does it apply to?


Agreeing on the idea of “place first” means accepting the idea that we’ll sometimes have to make sacrifices—in access, in convenience—in order to sustain the nature that makes it all possible.

Some of those changes have already taken place around the West: buses that bring people into Zion and Denali national parks to reduce car traffic and ease wildlife issues; restrictions on the number of people who can float Idaho’s Selway River through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. For more than two decades, Grand Teton National Park has closed some areas to backcountry skiing to give room to beleaguered bighorn sheep. People find such tradeoffs acceptable when they understand why they’re necessary, and—in the case of Zion—when the resulting experience is better because of them, says Christian Beckwith, co-founder of Alpinist magazine and the founder of the SHIFT conference, which aims to unite the recreation and environmental community.

As a recreation community, we should not only be prepared to accept more such temporal restrictions—we should also embrace and support them, if science tells us they work. In San Diego County, which has many endangered species, one such solution could be managing conservation across a broader landscape instead of in just one park, says Colorado State University researcher Sarah Reed. That might mean allowing more intense recreation in some natural areas and less in others, she says.

In the Bridger-Teton National Forest around Jackson, the future looks like a managed system that balances several uses in the “frontcountry” near town, rather than pushing more people into the backcountry to disperse the crowds. That gives wildlife such as bears more room to roam without conflict, says the Forest Service’s Merigliano. To work, the plan requires data on how people recreate: creating short hiking-only loops close to town for folks such as seniors who want a walk, for instance, or experimenting with alternate-day use for mountain biking on trails. “Our mantra has become, ‘The right use in the right location at the right time,’” Merigliano says.

Perhaps most important, the public needs to talk about the goal for any newly acquired natural area before it opens, says Reed. Once recreation is allowed in a location, it’s seldom curtailed.

Merigliano and Beckwith are optimistic that recreation and conservation can get along and boost one another. People really do care, says Merigliano. “It’s that they are focused on doing their own fun thing.”

“We’ve all got to give a little bit,” she adds. “Compromise is not a dirty word. There has to be some restraint.”

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