A Wild Good Time for Wild Places

By Nat Knowles
2018 CoalitionWILD Ambassador
United States


Hiking, skiing, kayaking, camping, biking, fishing, SUPing, birding, photography, canoeing, wildlife watching…the list goes on. With more access to the outdoors and more activities to enjoy than ever before, people are excited to explore wild areas all over the world. As a result, the recreation and tourism industries are growing rapidly. 
The traditional conservationist may wonder, “Are outdoor recreationists our friends by helping to conserve wild places or our enemies by intruding upon them?”
I believe outdoor recreationists are, or perhaps more accurately, have the potential to be, massive contributors to global conservation.
I grew up in Toronto – the biggest metropolitan centre in Canada.  I was lucky to spend my winters skiing the hills outside the city and my summers canoe tripping through Algonquin National Park. While doing what I loved to do, I also grew to love the environments where they took place: mountains, forests, and freshwater areas. Now I focus my conservation work on these same ecosystems. 
This isn’t to say that everyone who participates in outdoor activities will become a conservationist, but rather an example of how connecting with a place opens up a pathway to caring deeply about it. Information can be useful, but it can also be alienating. For instance, telling a friend that forests are being cut down at a rate of 27 soccer fields per minute, while true, is also both negative and overwhelming. Instead, bringing that friend into the local forest, having them smell the pine and hear the bird calls, and enjoying a picnic beneath the shade of an old-growth tree fosters a connection with the place unable to be reached through reading an online article.

Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) amongst high alpine glaciers.

Outdoor recreation fosters memorable experiences with the natural world, and with positive experiences, participants become attached to physical places and the feelings that place elicits – like a favourite summit, a trail they return to, a river that brings them peace, the autumn colors. This tangibility opens up opportunity to engage people in wilderness conservation issues, threats, potentials, and outcomes. Just check out the public’s response to United States President Trump reducing the size of Bears Ears National Monument.
As researchers Dunlap and Heffernan found in 1975: “Strong personal attachment to an outdoor recreation activity can lead to an equally strong commitment to protect those features of the environment which contribute directly to enjoyment of the activity.” Organizations Protect Our Winters and Ducks Unlimited are great examples of this point. 
The traditional conservationist may still be thinking something along the lines of, “experiencing nature doesn’t necessarily mean people will care enough to get involved.” 
My short answer: it might not matter.
People who choose to not become actively involved in conservation initiatives may still be helping to protect wild places simply by just participating in their recreation of choice. The growing value in outdoor recreation has the potential to stop exploitive industries (read: oil, gas, development, etc.) and contribute to more sustainable socio-economic development.

Watching the sun set over the Xingu River and Amazon Rainforest after a long day of hiking, fishing, and wildlife viewing. State of Para, Brazil.

For example Untamed Angling, a small-scale but high-end catch-and-release fly fishing outfitter working in Kayapo Indigenous Territory has been extremely successful in this regard. The area’s pristine ecosystem and rare fish draw high paying fly fishers from around the globe. Whether these fishermen (and women) are keen conservationists or not, their financial boost incentivizes local communities to keep their rivers and forests free from illegal fishermen, miners, and loggers which would otherwise degrade the fly fishing industry. 
Overall, outdoor recreation offers the same opportunities to support community development  while promoting profitable conservation. 
Profitable conservation? What! 
Conservation is usually supported through small scale fundraising (a few passionate donors), and open spaces are usually valued through exploitation (cutting it down or digging it up). Outdoor recreation, however, turns conserving nature into a valued resource. What this means is that the cost of conserving wilderness is less than the profits wilderness provides through outdoor recreation.
We’re talking big bucks here too – in the US alone, outdoor recreationists spend $887 billion annually and create 7.6 million jobs. (For reference the US logging industry only creates $53 billion annually and 950,000 jobs). Even a fraction of that is more than most fundraising campaigns can attain alone.

Wilderness is the core component of the outdoor industry, and recreation is a key connection between people and nature. If we can harness both the passion and and the pockets of the outdoor recreation community, having fun can have a serious positive impact on wilderness conservation. 

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