At what point do recreational activities become harmful to the environment?
By Ben Griffin
I love parks and recreation. Yes the show, but that’s not what I’m talking about this time (even though it’s literally the best). Many of the sports, activities, and leisurely pursuits we participate in involve parks and the outdoors. Team sports, impromptu games of ultimate frisbee and blob-tag, nature walks, and sends at the crag are all valuable experiences for many people I know (and way, way more people that I don’t know). However, there is a line to be drawn between recreation and environmental recklessness; how far do we encroach on the environment for our own enjoyment?
Living in the modern era, you should be aware that urbanization is the relentless reality of the modern civilization, and an archenemy of the environment. So long as space and resources are available, civilization will, with pitifully few exceptions, consume them. Environmentalists, activists, scientists, conservationists, and outdoor enthusiasts traditionally object to the environmentally destructive process of urbanization, and urge society to be more cautious with the world we live in. However, in the case of outdoor enthusiasts, exceptions for the preservation of nature are occasionally made (because, you know, we want to get out there and feel the nature…).
Let me give you not all, but a few examples. Ski resorts, whitewater parks, and bolted crags all have the potential to negatively impact alpine, aquatic, and terrestrial environments. The construction of ski resorts typically involves the removal of timber, which effectively removes part of the alpine habitat for birds and other wildlife, as well as increases the level of noise and human traffic, which can also drive away wildlife1. In addition, the removal of trees and destruction of native vegetation reduces the absorption of organic compounds necessary for healthy soil, which has long-term effects (and also ticks off the earthworms)2.
Second, whitewater parks, although ideally engineered with aquatic habitats in mind, still pose a problem for upstream fish navigation and the presence of aquatic wildlife. Stephens et. al studied the obstructive effects of urban whitewater parks and developed methods to mitigate them3. Having a surfing wave or a kayaking channel in the center of your city is appealing, but the native environment has to be considered.
Finally, bolted crags may also negatively impact the associated environment. “Climber’s trails” smother vegetation, approaches and the act of climbing contribute to rock and soil erosion, and the bolting of routes and frequent climbing can interfere with bird habitats4. Without bolted routes, the outdoor climbing community would be very limited, however the climbing community needs to be conscientious and diligent when it comes to habitat preservation.
With a better understanding of our recreational impact, do we continue to expand into nature, or do we leave some terrain undeveloped and unenjoyed? From an environmental perspective, it seems pretty clear that we should limit our invasion. However, I believe, and I imagine many of you believe that we need the outdoors as a mental, physical, and spiritual outlet. The least we can do as an outdoor community is to minimize our impact and limit the area of impact. That could mean backcountry skiing more regularly rather than driving to the nearest ski
resort. That could mean kayaking down rivers rather than a custom-made wave. That could mean doing less invasive forms of climbing like trad climbing and bouldering and limiting bolted areas.
There are a lot of ways to strike a balance between outdoor enjoyment and environmental responsibility. If the idea of balance interests you and you’d like to read about more details, check out the sources I referenced! Let me end with a cliché call to action: let us all work together to establish a reasonable line between recreation and environmental recklessness!
1 Hudek, C., Barni, E., Stanchi, S., D’Amico, M., Pintaldi, E., & Freppaz, M. (2020). Mid and long-term ecological impacts of ski run construction on alpine ecosystems. Scientific Reports, 10(11654). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-67341-7
3 Stephens, T., Bledsoe, B., Fox, B., Kolden, E., & Kondratieff, M. (2015). Effects of whitewater parks on fish passage: A spatially explicit hydraulic analysis. Ecological Engineering, 83, 305-318. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecoleng.2015.06.032
4 Sammartino, M. (2020, August 24). To Bolt or Not to Bolt: A Framework for Common Sense Climbing Regulation. Retrieved February 18, 2020, from https://www.americanbar.org/groups/environment_energy_resources/publications/plr/20200824-to-bolt-or-not-to-bolt/