Out of doors Recreation Equals Conservation: Debunking The Fantasy

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There are no bioregions left in the American Lower 48, except for this one, that possess the kind of “wild” Greater Yellowstone does; where, on a single late summer’s evening, within the same general proximity, we can hear wild wolves howl, loons trilling and elk bugling, watch free-ranging bison wallow and bellow, have a good chance of spotting a grizzly bear mother with cubs ambling, cast for wild native trout, and soak in a sense of solitude that could cause us to forget what year it is.

It’s what we do en masse, collectively, as a species with an insatiable desire to claim more terrain as our own, figuratively and in fee title, that adds up. The toll, and the veracity of this statement, are indelibly written on human-dominated lands around the world where there is an absence or dwindling diversity of native wildlife. If you are reading these words from outside the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in a city, suburb or an exurb that is in transition to become suburbanized, ask yourself why so many of the original native large mammal species are no longer present, and why most will never return in a foreseeable time frame. 

In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a key reflection must be on understanding why wildness is still here, anticipating how long it might endure considering current trends, and making the public more aware about the things that cause de-wilding. 

At the end of the 20th century, as Greater Yellowstone and other mountain regions in the Rockies transitioned away from logging, boom-and-bust hardrock mining, and livestock grazing that resulted in erasure of many native species, the emerging prevailing belief was that nurturing outdoor recreation economies represented better, benign alternatives to resource extraction of old.

In recent years, many mainstream conservation organizations that previously—and still do— cut their teeth trying to halt clearcutting of old-growth forests and permitting of new mines on public lands, in part to protect wildlife and its habitat, forged an alliance with the outdoor recreation industry and together they advanced three basic arguments many accept today as fact.

The assertions go something like this:

1.     Outdoor recreation equals more conservation.

2.     Greater access for human user groups to public lands by itself translates into many more positive conservation outcomes. 

3.     When recreation happens in landscapes vital to the survival of certain species it improves public support for conservation of those species inside the landscapes those species inhabit.

Logically, we might wonder: how does that work? How does putting more humans into spaces populated by sensitive species better the survival prospects for animals actually living there? 

Here in America’s most iconic wildlife-rich ecosystem, a good place to start with addressing the questions is defining what “conservation” means.  Let’s begin with this: what is actually being protected or conserved under the banner of conservation if “wildlife conservation” is not given main emphasis? On private ground, for instance, we often talk about “open space protection” but what if the farmland being protected lies in the middle of a subdivision and while there’s still a pretty view, most of the large native wildlife species are gone? 

A corollary conservation question involving public land would be: should creating more habitat for we humans to play on public land, in a region like Greater Yellowstone, be as important a priority as protecting habitat for non-humans whose options for population persistence in the decades ahead are likely to be shrinking? 

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A few years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford gave a lecture at Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. He spoke of things people repeat over and over again that just aren’t true but nonetheless become part of the accepted lexicon and then are embraced as fact. Things such as all growth is good or that living the American dream is easy to achieve equally for everyone.

It can be argued that “recreation equals wildlife conservation” qualifies as one of those tropes, when in truth, both studies and scientific experts say, it is just the opposite—that intense levels of recreation, more trails and expanded public access have, repeatedly, been demonstrated to show negative impacts on native wildlife (“weedy” species that become easily habituated to humans like white-tailed deer, coyotes, raccoons and rodents excepted).

The premise of “recreation equals conservation” has been spoken so often, seldom challenged, and it seems so compelling, at least superficially, that recently developers of a controversial “glamping resort” called River Bend Glamping Getaway proposed for construction along the banks of the Gallatin River west of Bozeman borrowed the rhetoric. 

The Gallatin River, for those who might not be aware, is a revered Western trout stream that begins in Yellowstone National Park and courses northward as one of three rivers that converge near Three Forks, Montana and create the Missouri River. The Gallatin was featured dreamily as a backdrop for the movie poster of Robert Redford’s film depiction of A River Runs Through It.

In a full-page ad taken out in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on Feb. 9, 2022, River Bend developers, obviously heeding the advice of clever PR mavens, declared in bold letters that “Recreation Encourages Conservation” as a slogan intended to win the development approval from the Gallatin County Commission. At the bottom of the ad, there was an added tagline: “Tourists visit Montana to experience our natural beauty. And to ensure it endures we introduce them to stewardship.”

A photograph of the full-page ad which ran in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and was paid for by developers of the proposed River Bend Glamping Getaway for the banks of the famous Gallatin River west of Bozeman.

Besides incongruities of logic in that last sentence and in several subsequent River Bend ads that have appeared over a succession of weeks, an intelligent person might find some of the contentions to be dubious. Yet many people residing in the Greater Yellowstone region and millions more who visit it may believe adopt the slogans as fact. So again, is the contention that recreation and development bolsters conservation true?

Last year Yellowstone National Park notched nearly five million tourist/recreation visits— since the new millennium began tens of millions of them.  Parts of the Greater Yellowstone region have been inundated with newcomers, more development and recreation-minded visitors as never before during the Covid pandemic. Do we now have more mass appreciation for the conservation of Nature? What’s the evidence?  If so, how it is being expressed? Have those numbers of people translated into a citizen groundswell rising to meet the growing threats to wildness?

In the case of River Bend, how does attracting tourists interested in having glamorous camping experiences by staying in Calistoga wagons and faux-rustic cabins inside the corridor of a vaunted American trout stream materially benefit the Gallatin River, engender more appreciation for natural beauty and advance conservation of water quality and species in the river? How will this resort, as the newspaper ad implies, create better, more enlightened human stewards of Nature?  

Critics of the ads call them a mockery of common sense and an insult to the spirit of real stewardship, as well as a symbol of how we all are thoughtlessly loving Nature to death. I often return to a perspective offered to me by Yellowstone National Park’s former science chief, David Hallac, who said when I was writing a story about threats to the Yellowstone region that appeared in National Geographic. Hallac warned that the natural fabric of the ecosystem is not just facing death by 1,000 cuts by large threats, but steady deterioration or death by 10,000 scratches that seem imperceptible but as an accumulation are eroding the essence of wildness. Outdoor recreation, a growing number of scientists say, is bringing its own form of lacerating effects.

In order to fully appreciate why the messaging of River Bend is attracting public outrage, it would be instructive for readers to visit its website and assess for themselves see how developers are using rhetoric to portray its project as Shangri-la. 

River Bend proclaims in its marketing: “‘Eco’ is more than a word to us. We’re humbled to steward a small part of the Gallatin River, and we’re committed to having minimal impact on the river and all of our natural surroundings.” 

Apparently, stewarding part of the Gallatin and being committed to minimal impact involves siting part of a new proposed development in the flood plain, inviting thousands of tourist guests into the riparian area which is guaranteed to displace wildlife, and running gas and wastewater pipes beneath the river. Yet River Bend isn’t alone. A similar kind of messaging is flowing out of  development and real estate offices, chambers of commerces, state tourism, outdoor recreation and governors’ offices spending millions of dollars to promote more recreation and recreational development—even as some trailheads and river stretches are brimming with people. 

These entities are not alone. Notably, similar rhetoric has been streaming out of the offices of conservation and environmental groups in Greater Yellowstone. If the swelling numbers of humans now using public lands is any gauge, then the messaging of all of the above has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, inspiring record numbers of people to recreate, move to Greater Yellowstone or build dream vacation homes often in the middle of wildlife habitat.

But now what? Will the blind promotion continue? What are the limits for how much pressure Greater Yellowstone’s wildlife can take? When is enough enough and will conservation organizations take the lead in helping the public, land management agencies, developers realize what the threshold of enough is?

Ironically, a few of the conservation groups and other entities often promoting differing iterations of “recreation is conservation”— as River Bend is now doing—have filed a lawsuit to stop the proposed glamping resort, arguing that this recreation development will harm the very wild essence of the Gallatin River. The litigants are Upper Missouri River Waterkeeper, Montana Trout Unlimited, Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, Simms Fishing Products, Protect the Gallatin River, Madison-Gallatin Trout Unlimited, American Rivers and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Worth mentioning is that very few have gotten involved in planning and zoning issues, pushing to prevent residential and other forms of commercial development from invading river corridors

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One of the plaintiffs, American Rivers and its Northern Rockies Director Scott Bosse, however, understands the wicked predicament. Bosse has openly questioned the legitimacy of the “recreation encourages conservation” mantra. His position has much larger implications. Bosse has earned widespread praise among a growing number of citizens around the region who believe that growing levels of industrial-strength outdoor recreation, which accelerated during the Covid pandemic, are out of control. They assert that public land agencies, like the US Forest Service, which is the largest administrator of public land acreage in Greater Yellowstone, really has no idea of what the present impacts of rising recreation are on wildlife and, more frightening, what they will be.

“We used to think of, and tout, recreation as a non-consumptive gateway to conservation, but we seriously need to revisit that,” Bosse told me. “All we need to do is look around at the impacts coming to bear on public and private land. Things have changed quickly and we need to wake up.” 

A while back, Bosse and I were chatting about rising levels of river traffic and recreational use levels on many of Greater Yellowstone’s vaunted water corridors. In the summers of 2021 and 2020, Bosse, an enthusiastic floater and fly-fisher, said there were many days when he was never out of sight of seven boats downriver and another seven boats above him.  

“While they are often linked, there’s a fundamental difference between recreation and conservation. Recreation is about taking. It’s a form of hedonism. Conservation is about giving. Sometimes that means giving up the opportunity to recreate in certain places or at certain times of the year to protect wildlife. Sadly, far too many recreationists take without giving anything back. That’s why our conservation deficit is worsening in Greater Yellowstone and our wildlife is increasingly under siege.”  —Scott Bosse, Northern Rockies regional director of American Rivers

The Yellowstone River, as with the Madison, the Snake, the Bighorn, the Upper Missouri and other famed trout streams in the West used to be conveyor belts of biodiversity for everything from paramecia to apex predators. Now they are different kinds of conveyor belts—for consumption, real estate plays, monetizable experiences and leisurely self-indulgence, with the message being that unless rivers are “working” to serve human needs, they hold little value. 

Bosse condemned the proposed Gallatin River glampground in a commentary which appeared in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. But he also turned heads by broaching a taboo topic that most conservation groups in the region have largely ignored or turned away from. “Let’s explore the claim that ‘recreation encourages conservation,’” Bosse wrote in a guest essay. “As a lifelong outdoorsman who lives to fish, hunt, paddle and ski, I’ll be the first to admit that recreating in the outdoors played a huge role in turning me into a conservationist. Many of America’s most celebrated conservationists — people like Teddy Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold and Mardy Murie — got their inspiration to preserve wild country from immersing themselves in the outdoors. So yes, recreation can encourage conservation. But not always.”

Bosse then addressed newspaper readers directly: “Ask yourself this — has the explosive recreational development around Big Sky over the past few decades conserved the area’s forests, wildlife and once-pristine streams? Has industrial recreation around Moab, Utah conserved the surrounding redrock canyons and created more opportunities for solitude?”

Bosse’s answer: “Of course not. While they are often linked, there’s a fundamental difference between recreation and conservation,” he wrote. “Recreation is about taking. It’s a form of hedonism. Conservation is about giving. Sometimes that means giving up the opportunity to recreate in certain places or at certain times of the year to protect wildlife. Sadly, far too many recreationists take without giving anything back. That’s why our conservation deficit is worsening in Greater Yellowstone and our wildlife is increasingly under siege.”

(Below: a 2018 video produced by the Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board, part of a promotion campaign intended to grow Jackson Hole’s place as a year-round travel destination. The campaign was controversial but has become even more so in the wake of the Covid pandemic which brought crushing visitation to Jackson Hole and has caused many locals to question the assertion implied by the travel and tourism board that Jackson Hole is a place where you can have it all—unbound outdoor recreation opportunities on public lands and healthy populations of wildlife existing side by side. After coming under intense scrutiny and citizen pressure, the board modified the message to now read “Jackson Hole: Responsibly Wild” but wildlife advocates say intense recreation pressure still is negatively impacting wildlife and some recreation user groups continue to push for more trails.. We’ll be exploring how conservation groups, the travel board and Forest Service are responding in a future story).