In a recent post by celebrated guidebook author Craig Romano, whose books I have reviewed, he talks about how scenic areas are becoming popular, overcrowded and a destination for outdoor groups of all shapes and sizes. The article says that trails are being heavily used, and that traffic needs to be directed elsewhere. I agree to a point, but the tone of the article in question rubbed me the wrong way.
Yes. Our trails are getting popular, but there is a reason and it isn’t the social media or hiking websites. People are sticking to one or two trails around the PNW because all the other trails are kept secret, quietly discussed with covered mouths so even lip readers won’t known. When people (writers, hikers or just community members) start suggesting regions to new hikers, the loudest voices in the hiking community scorn them.
I have been trying, over the last four years, to get more people out on more trails around the Olympic Peninsula and the Pacific Northwest. I have been hoping to help the more curious hikers discover the beauty of the region, but also to help raise awareness of public lands, and give people a nudge to hike other trails than the one that is popular on Instagram or Facebook this week. For these efforts, all I got from many is a deafening roar, telling me that I am sharing secrets, as if being born in an area makes them, and only them, entitled to hike the local trail. You can’t have it both ways. Either we have crowded trails in a few locations, or you might see a few dozen or more people on your favorite, secret day trail.
The issue is less about hikers and more about the realization that we actually have to share. We actually have to talk to others and encourage appropriate use. We have to be responsible as stewards of the land instead of passive adventurers who enjoy it. Many of us know there is a fundamental flaw in the hiking community’s attitude toward inclusion, but that has to stop. People wanting to hike aren’t to blame. They are, as hard as it might be to comprehend, the solution to our problems.
People want to connect with nature, this much is obvious. The National Parks in the State of Washington brought in $615.6 million to the economy. In 2014, 4.72 million people visited Washington’s National Parks, meaning that the average visitor spent $130.42 in the region. Blaming these people for wanting to explore wilderness is wrong, uncalled for, and quite simply irresponsible. We should be celebrating the fact that millions of Americans are spending their time and money reconnecting with an idea of wilderness that was once raped in the name of Manifest Destiny. We should be rejoicing that trails are getting popular, and be downright gleeful that people are starting to see the need for fully funded public lands.
It all comes down to funding, and I agree when Craig on this. People are voting against the environment for a handful of social issues, or voting against conservation because of a letter after a name on the ballot. The issue is not that people are hiking, it is that people are not voting to keep protected lands funded enough to keep up with the demand. If you look at outdoors from a business point of view, you wouldn’t blame the customer for buying your product before you can restock it, you blame your business plan.
To the people who know that areas are being over-crowded, I have a few questions: Where are the volunteer groups (or places to join volunteer group) at the trail head to hand out garbage bags, teach about staying on the trail and encouraging others to leaving no impact? If state rangers asked you to try to reduce the pressure on trails, where were the posts about this on the large organization’s websites, redirecting people to five hiking options near those crowded areas? Why does it feel that the more crowded a trail gets, the angrier and bitter many “seasoned” hikers get at people wanting to experience the same level of nature we were lucky enough to hike?
This land is your land, this land is my land, this land was made for you and me. Nobody is special in nature, we are all just lucky enough to be able to enjoy it. We are lucky enough to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and with that residency comes great responsibility. Instead of blaming everyone, why not get excited that we have an entire generation of hikers who want to know how to use the land appropriately, but have never been told what that looks like? We are all stewards of the land, and we are all needed to ensure that protected lands stay respected, well-funded and accessible to all, not just those lucky enough to have discovered them first.
Craig ends his post by saying “There are thousands of other places to venture. Let’s be the explorers that we are and find them! We just need to make sure we can get to them first.”
It is exactly that attitude that has gotten the trails to where we are today. Every trail has been hiked, and every peak has been climbed, so we need to stop making this a competition and start coming up with an appropriate solutions by working together. Will we have disagreements? Sure, but without a conversation that includes everyone, we will continue to see overuse of certain trails.
We, the hiking community, need to sober up from wanderlust and understand that it is time to transition hiking and wilderness tourism to the new reality. We could continue to let a handful of hikers, dead-set on keeping their areas secret. decide what trails the masses are allowed to hike, or we can truly share the Trails of the Pacific Northwest, letting the new hikers in the region discover areas otherwise unknown. It is time to stop being secretive about nature and fully embrace wilderness and tourism.
I see the over-crowding issue on trails as a welcome challenge, and hopefully we will be able to get more families out on trails, learning about restoration, protection and conservation, passing it down to future generations.