While walking Manistee National Forest trails near my home last week I encountered a group of young nature camp counselors-in-training. I wanted to tell them about the beautiful fawn hidden beneath ferns just 100 feet from the path. But I bit my tongue.
I couldn’t bring myself to disclose the newborn Bambi’s presence. According to a recent University of Washington report, recreation on federal lands is the second leading cause of species endangerment in the U.S.
In many conservation circles, there is increased talk of how we are loving to death our parks and wildlands. Successful marketing promotions, like the Pure Michigan campaign, and the public’s incessant thirst for selfies are said to be leading a surge in visitors to natural areas.
Last year Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore broke attendance records. National Park data reported 1.6 million people visited the park in 2018. It’s anticipated that 1.7 million people will head to Sleeping Bear this year as Michigan’s overall tourism numbers climb.
It’s not only parks under threat of being loved to death by visitors. Many of us viewed the astonishing photos last spring of the line of climbers scaling Mount Everest, despite an unprecedented number of climber deaths. Also, in May, NPR reported the Louvre museum in Paris shut down when workers protested that the increased number of visitors was unmanageable. More than 10 million people visited the art museum in 2018, up 25 percent over 2017.
Parks, like the museum, were not built to handle the immense crowds their popularity attracts. Inadequate roads, trails, buildings, maintenance and staffing puts the very places we love at risk from overuse. It’s quite a conundrum for those of us who like to feed our need for the great outdoors.
The outdoors provides visitors health benefits. Outdoor experiences can inspire conservation and protections for nature. But where is the tipping point? The University of Washington report concludes that even a percentage of Leave No Trace visitors create a negative impact on natural areas.
Michigan Department of Natural Resources recently established the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry. Its stated mission is to “… work with industry partners from many sectors to anticipate emerging trends, create effective policy and elevate outdoor recreation opportunities and resources across Michigan.” The new office’s promotional language touts Michigan’s vast natural resources and the $26.6 billion the state’s outdoor recreation generates annually in consumer spending.
It defines its top goal as expanding Michigan’s outdoor recreation economy. Only at the bottom of the list of objectives is resource stewardship mentioned.
Of course, tourism makes a vital contribution to the state and local economies. But who will say when enough is enough? What metrics will be used to measure irreversible harm to our wilds? Will actions be too little too late when we recognize the treasures at risk of being loved to death?
These are questions to ask ourselves the next time we hike a trail, paddle a stream or enjoy a day at the beach with our children.