The idea that outdoor recreators will find freedom from society on public lands has been over-advertised. This “outdoor dream” has been sold so well that we now face extreme overcrowding in popular recreational areas. Recreators are chasing a false “outdoor dream” of finding solitude in a pristine, untouched landscape, only to find that society is right there on the trail with them.
As Colorado prepares for its busiest time of the year for outdoor recreation, I encourage you to think about how you can avoid the crowds and find that sense of freedom and tranquility you are looking for — not to mention to limit the harmful impacts of overcrowding.
A 2021 study in the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, looking at people’s motivations for outdoor trips, found “escaping personal-social-physical pressure”, “being away from people and civilization” and “experiencing peace and tranquility” to be important reasons for going outdoors. This is not a new concept.
For a long time, the “outdoor dream” has been well-advertised to promote this idea that experiences in wilderness allow us to get away from our day to day lives. Consider this 1916 Glacier National Park advertisement that depicts a woman on horseback, with one arm extended out, gesturing a sense of freedom and “washing away all of her daily worries.”
While that might have been the case when the U.S. population was about 1/3 the size of today, it is no longer the case. More than 100 years later, Glacier National Park is now combating similar images of the “outdoor dream”. On this webpage, they compare “the dream”, an Instagram photo of a beautiful vista with no one in sight, with “reality”, crowds blocking the beautiful vista. Protected area managers are finding themselves in a situation where they need to educate visitors on the realities of overcrowding and encourage visitors to avoid popular areas and go at unpopular times of the day.
Colorado is no stranger to overcrowding on public lands. In 2020, as a result of us being very limited in where we could “escape” the pandemic, Colorado’s State Parks saw a total of 19.5 million visitors, a 31% increase in visitation compared to the previous year. That record was broken in 2021 when 19.9 million visitors entered Colorado State Parks.
If Colorado State Park’s don’t see enough visitation already, they are likely to see an increase with the new Keep Colorado Wild Pass. Starting this year, any Colorado resident who registers their vehicle will automatically receive a $29 State Park pass, unless they opt out.
With more and more visitors, land managers face tough questions. How do you provide access while mitigating the consequences of high visitation on visitor experience, wildlife-human interactions and ecosystem degradation?
The 2021 Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism study also found that a major concern for people when considering an outdoor trip is crowding. Crowds can be scary, especially in the era of social distancing. One of the top strategies to deal with a myriad of concerns when going outdoors is related to crowding, such as going on the weekdays or going to a wilderness area.
Advertising the “outdoor dream” is not all bad. It has in part led to a boom in the outdoor recreation industry. Coloradans spend $37 billion annually on outdoor recreation, an amount equivalent to the entire State of Colorado budget, which funds basic services like K-12 education, prisons, courts and more every year.
Coloradans can make a huge impact on conservation if their dollars are reinvested back into preserving the places they love. Take Big Agnes, the Steamboat Springs-based outdoor gear company, that committed to donating a portion of their proceeds to the conservation of the Yampa River and the Continental Divide Trail. Colorado’s outdoor companies should continue to invest in the preservation and protection of the outdoor places their businesses survive on.
Advertising the ”outdoor dream” has increased the number of people who go outdoors, but also the number of people who donate to and participate in environmental groups, according to a 2015 study. This is important for increasing the number of Coloradans behind pro-environmental initiatives and policies that can combat the harmful environmental impacts from overcrowding.
As you prepare to chase the “outdoor dream” this summer, remember that others will be pursuing the dream alongside you. Manage your expectations by researching whether your destination gets overcrowded quickly. Check out the comments section on hiking apps like AllTrails or Hiking Project. Use resources provided by the land management agency of your destination and always check their website before you go for tips, maps and regulations. Check to see if your destination has a parking lot camera like the City of Fort Collins Open Space and find cameras around the state on the LotSpot app.
Remember to always minimize your impact on the ecosystem by using the 7 Leave No Trace principles. And lastly, get involved in local conservation efforts to ensure that the places you visit are just as beautiful for the next generation.
Holly Gordon, of Fort Collins, is a masters of conservation leadership student at Colorado State University.
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