In these strange, upsetting times, it is helpful to find silver linings. Sure, my 4-year-old hasn’t played on a jungle gym since March.
But he is awesome at climbing the pirate ship/climbing wall/jungle gym built of scaffolding in our driveway. It’s the COVID silver linings that will leave the lasting mark on ourselves and families. Human nature is remarkably adept at forgetting the rest.
One silver lining Coloradoans experience weekly, like it or not, is the number of Americans flocking to our public lands. Americans of all backgrounds and persuasions are driving record visitation numbers.
More than anything, they are escaping virus-induced restrictions on our lives. By RV, SUV, bicycle and foot, they are flooding national parks and forests, forgotten BLM lands, state parks, campgrounds, anything with public access and physical space.
The great outdoors means different things to different people. I am a Coloradan and an outdoor enthusiast. For me, getting outside is an essential act, on par with eating, sleeping and (recently) wearing a mask. Nature offers adventure to feed my soul, solace from the modern world, spiritual connection.
I’m a member of the church of Mother Nature. I pray in the cathedral of her mountains. My outdoor adventures are based on a reverence that many reserve for religious practices. We are not apart from nature but a part. Being outside to revel in her beauty is not part of life, it is life.
So, it pleases me to see so many millions of my fellow Americans getting outside during COVID summer. Of course, it’s due to a tragic pandemic. But if it means more of us getting outside and experiencing nature, then it’s a silver lining, right?
Not exclusively. I have observed a dark side to so many newcomers to Colorado’s public lands – many visitors who don’t know how to show Mother Nature the respect and care she deserves.
In July, while fly fishing a beaver pond on the San Juan River, I observed a teenager in a family of side-by-side enthusiasts catch a healthy brown trout, squeeze its delicate skin in a hand towel to avoid touching it, and chase his screaming sister with the suffocating fish.
No thought was given to the creature being tortured, or its role in a delicate system of which we are a part.
A week later, I stepped in a pile of human feces at the top of Lincoln Creek in a meadow marred by wads of toilet paper left to despoil the area for years.
My usually reverent soul is crushed by these defilements. These are not acts of willful disrespect or contempt for Mother Nature and our shared heritage that is public land. They’re acts of ignorance by the uneducated. With so many using the great outdoors as a COVID escape, they are more common than ever.
For generations, accessing the outdoors was reserved for those with the desire and skills. With the advent of easier means of access, safer and sterilized experiences, the relentless advertising of the recreation industry and the realities of living in a pandemic, more people are getting outside.
But many lack the ethic and experience that used to be the price of entry. Their lack of knowledge about the fragility of Mother Nature and our responsibility to serve as her stewards has consequences: tortured wild trout, feces-despoiled landscapes, the proliferation of camp sites on every inch of flat forest. The land risks becoming a recreational amenity, not the fabric of our state identity and spiritual home.
I am a romantic about nature. I am a realist about society. I don’t expect millions of Americans to convert to the Church of The Holy Mountains. But I do expect them to act morally.
Show respect for fragile, living things and to treat Colorado’s public lands as the priceless jewels that they are. If they weren’t worthy of respect and reverence, why do so many come to experience them?
It is noteworthy that in our society enjoying the outdoors is not experienced equally. People of color have rightly felt excluded from public lands and outdoor pursuits. Good work is being done to introduce equity to this aspect of American life, and more needs to be done.
I believe an essential aspect of that is educating all citizens on being stewards of Mother Nature, not just participants in outdoor recreation.
In lieu of federal and state leaders showing leadership by educating our residents and visitors, our communities can. This begins with you. Educate your friends, neighbors, fellow hikers and campers to help them do better. Offer something constructive to turn them into stewards instead of users. It’s the least you can do for all that Mother Nature does for us every day.
Phillip Supino is an urban planner and conservation advocate in the Roaring Fork Valley, and he loves nature. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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