By David Taft
San Juan Mountains Association
There has always been a hunger to explore awe-inspiring landscapes and iconic settings in the American West. In the early days, these places were promoted by the railroads inspiring flat-landers to head west, or by early American magazines, which were happy to provide curious Easterners a glimpse at what lies to the enigmatic west.
Eventually, a sizable industry of travel companies and guidebooks filled the role of shepherding outdoor enthusiasts toward noteworthy features and experiences. These days, the propensity for sharing the places that inspire us has migrated to digital media. It doesn’t take much beyond a casual Google search or a leisurely swipe through your Instagram feed to find somewhere gorgeous to visit.
Whether by guidebook or social media algorithm, people love visiting the headline destinations. Consequently, many of us have noticed an increasing concentration of outdoor enthusiasts in relatively few locales. At times, it can feel like every visitor in our millions of acres of forest are hiking up the same couple miles of trail. Burgeoning visitation, combined with varying levels of backcountry savvy, have lead to the notion that areas are being “loved to death.” While there is little argument that some places see huge (and still growing) visitation, and the resource is suffering as a result, there is a more productive discussion worth having within the overuse conversation. Notably, it often leads to the conclusion that the problem is too many people are using their public lands. This attitude is elitist and exclusionary, and it neglects the fact that we all have a right to explore, enjoy and hopefully give back to our public lands. As stewards of our local public lands, it would be much more effective to avoid placing blame and instead to discuss a path forward.
Rather than begrudge the fact that more people are enjoying our favorite trails and camp spots, we should focus on solutions. We should encourage visitors to act responsibly and ensure that we are doing our part to protect and maintain public lands. It’s worth remembering that if more people visit and appreciate public lands, more people will support efforts to protect, preserve and properly manage these areas.
There are several effective, constructive and free ways we can all make a positive contribution toward managing high-use areas and prevent the degradation of our public lands.
Something we should all know, practice and share with others are the Leave No Trace guidelines. Many of us have had the opportunity to learn about responsible backcountry behavior through school programs, outdoor jobs and family experiences, but ultimately, there are plenty of people just getting into the outdoor world. These visitors may not be aware that they should camp away from streams, travel on durable surfaces or avoid geotagging specific locations on social media. So, those in the know can gently encourage our fellow travelers to follow best practices. If you need a refresher, visit LNT.org to learn about how to travel lightly in the backcountry.
Additionally, there are ample opportunities to demonstrate your appreciation for public lands through volunteer efforts. Within our community, we have an abundance of great organizations doing work on local public lands such as Mountain Studies Institute, Trails 2000, San Juan Outdoor Club and San Juan Mountains Association. These organizations provide volunteer opportunities for all ages, abilities and interests. Most trailhead access in this area is totally free, so volunteering is the perfect way to make a meaningful contribution to our public land.
Finally, given that much of the concern with high-use areas is driven by the fact that everyone is gravitating toward the same trails, campgrounds and features, we can all benefit by trying something different. Get out and explore a new trail, paddle a different stream or climb a new peak. We are fortunate to have millions of acres of public land in Southwest Colorado, so get out and find somewhere new. Our guidebooks and staff at the San Juan Public Lands Center can help steer you in the right direction, so call or stop in before your next adventure.