Tragedy of the Playground
You call someplace Paradise—kiss it goodbye.
The Eagles, “Hotel California”
“Recreation” connotes revitalization, the re-creation of spirit. In an increasingly urbanized culture, people recreate in natural settings to lift their spirits and revitalize their outlook and motivation. Public lands in the western United States, which embrace much of the nation’s remaining natural and wild areas, are especially attractive—and most are open for recreation. We authors certainly have found solace from camping, hiking, climbing, and skiing in backcountry areas. But latetwentieth-century American affluence has created a massive and unprecedented invasion of these lands, and particularly an invasion of motorized recreation.
All human uses of natural areas can, and generally do, degrade soils, kill plants, and increase erosion rates, with resultant water pollution and ecosystem damage.1 In small numbers, and spread out widely, recreational disturbances can be minor, but millions of people regularly play on western public lands in mass gatherings that have large cumulative impacts. More now drive vehicles across forested or desert areas than pursue the less-damaging activities of hiking and small-group camping.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service (USFS) oversee the largest amount of western land available for recreation. By law, the agencies must manage public lands for multiple uses and “sustained yield.”2 Instead, federal land-management agencies are partitioning them to separate incompatible pursuits, including many that consume land. For example, as logging, mining, and grazing pressures ease, recreational pressures are exploding in Colorado’s White River National Forest, a short 50 miles west of Denver on Interstate Highway 70. Along with Denver’s increasing population, snowmobile registrations jumped 70% in Colorado since 1985. Off-road vehicles (ORVs) are everywhere, and mountain bike use has jumped more than 200%. Between 1990 and 2004, all ORV registrations in Colorado increased more than 650%. Ski facilities also burgeoned, along with hiker and equestrian demands for greater backcountry