A century ago, when the mission of the National Park Service was spelled out, recreation as we know it didn’t exist. Since then pack rafts, wingsuits, and Vibram soles have come on the scene, and the increasing variety and pervasiveness of outdoor pursuits have sparked an unlikely battle between recreationists, who want to be free to ride, paddle, and climb, and conservationists, who want to restrict those sorts of activities in the name of protecting the land.
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Until recently, much of the disagreement over what should be allowed in our national parks focused on impact. (Snowshoeing and mountain biking, for instance, both affect the landscape, as does horseback riding, which is commonplace in national parks and wilderness areas.) Skiers, climbers, and others who play outside don’t want to harm the environment, of course. And the reality is that the impact of human-powered recreation is “really pretty minute,” says Bob Ratcliffe, head of the Park Service’s recreation and conservation programs. The larger issue is whether an activity fits into what the NPS calls the “mission of the park.”
“Recreation is still the redheaded stepchild of the Park Service,” says Luther Propst, chairman of the board for the Outdoor Alliance, a leading advocacy and conservation group. “A lot of the hardcore conservation movement is made up of aging baby boomers who think the only legitimate way to experience nature is hiking at a leisurely pace.”
The Park Service remains the one land-management agency in the U.S. without its own division of recreation, though many in the service are beginning to recognize that outdoor athletes are getting stronger and more organized—and could become powerful allies in the fight to preserve public lands.
Ratcliffe, a former Colorado River guide and a Bureau of Land Management alum, began his current job in 2012. He works to help park managers shift their thinking and accommodate emerging activities. At Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, for example, allowing mountain biking would have been “inconceivable” only five years ago, Ratcliffe says. “Now, sometimes it seems like more people visit the park to ride the trails than to see the cave.”
The hope is that those riders—part of an outdoor industry that generates an annual $646 billion in consumer spending—will become conservationists, too.
“Some environmentalists turned away from recreation, and that left out a lot of users,” says Stacy Bare, of the Sierra Club. “We need to get more recreationists involved in the movement, and vice versa.”
Christian Beckwith, a founding editor of Alpinist magazine, has made that his mission. A Jackson, Wyoming, resident and longtime climber, Beckwith started the SHIFT conference three years ago to rally adventurers, conservationists, and land managers around common goals. “When you take a step back, we’re all after the same outcome, which is to keep these lands healthy,” he says.
If climbers are busy fighting falcon defenders, Beckwith argues, then they’re not banding together to limit mining and other types of development. “What I’m trying to do is figure out how to leverage recreational interests for conservation gains,” he says. “Otherwise we all lose.”