Is it time to re-examine the “enjoyment equals support” equation and to encourage outdoor recreationists to feel welcome in our public lands? ©Bureau of Land Management

When President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service on August 25, 1916, I doubt he anticipated that one of the statute’s words would cause a lot of controversy 100 years later. The Organic Act of 1916 states that the purpose of the service “in areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations” is to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The contentious word is “enjoyment.”

In 1916, ATVs, personal drones, exercise boot camps, mountain bikes, snowmobiles and wingsuits weren’t commonplace. Today, however, such popular outdoor activities and pursuits are pitting recreationists against traditional conservationists, who would prefer to restrict such pastimes and hobbies in national parks in order, they say, to protect the land.

What’s right for the land should be the determining factor when considering any use of it. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Some avid recreationists believe that the conservation movement is mostly made up of aging baby boomers who think the only legitimate way to experience nature is by hiking at a leisurely pace, keeping recreationists from enjoying our public lands in the manner they prefer.

Is it time to rethink the term “enjoyment” as it applies to our national parks?

A SHIFT in thinking

According to SHIFT (Shifting How we Invest For Tomorrow), an organization that hopes to unite recreationists and conservationists around the common goal of protecting public lands: “Today, with the membership of traditional conservation organizations aging, outdoor recreation offers a remarkable opportunity to reinvigorate the protection of our public lands and waters—but only if the next generation of stewards is able to engage with them in the first place.”

Will baby boomers be able to accept new, different ways of experiencing nature? ©U.S. Army

To that end, groups of recreationists are already engaged in attempts to change laws that restrict their chosen activities on protected lands. For example, the Sustainable Trails Coalition is lobbying for a new bill that would amend the 1964 Wilderness Act to give local forest supervisors the discretion to open wilderness trails to mountain bikers.

What particularly irks some recreationists is the high horse that conservationists tend to ride. Activities such as bird-watching, cross-country skiing and hiking can negatively affect the environment, too. According to a February 13, 2015, article in The New York Times, “In 2008 Sarah Reed, an associate conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, and her colleagues found fivefold declines in detections of bobcats, coyotes and other midsize carnivores in protected areas in California that allowed quiet recreation activities like hiking, compared with protected areas that prohibited those activities.

“In a not-yet-published review of 218 studies about recreation’s impacts on wildlife, researchers found more evidence of impacts by hikers, backcountry skiers and their like than by the gas-powered contingent.”

Against recent attacks on public lands, a strong coalition is needed. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

A swing toward selfishness

For their part, however, some conservationists say that this new trend by organized groups of recreationists to try to change laws to accommodate their avocations is simply selfish. A case in point is in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. In 2014, packrafters helped pass a law ordering the two parks to do a feasibility study of recreational paddling. Conservationists, fearing that legislating special access to a national park by a specific user group would set a bad precedent, opposed the ordinance. Such recreationists, say their critics, are focused on doing what they want, where they want. If they don’t get their way, they charge discrimination rather than question whether more for them is really what’s right for the land.

I suppose I could fit into that stereotype of the aging baby boomer who wants to preserve some natural places for “hiking at a leisurely pace.” But I also wouldn’t mind packrafting down a river if it could get me into a spot I wanted to see and couldn’t get to by any other means. So contrary to the cliché, I do believe that outdoor recreationists should also be allowed their enjoyments and that they could become powerful partners in the current struggle to preserve public lands.

Do you think we will we need to open up our national parks for more types of recreational pursuits in order to engage the next generation in conservation and environmentalism?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,