Eco-Contraditions

Carl Pope, Sierra Club Executive Director responds to essay by Virginia Postrel, editor of Reason Magazine.

In what is decidedly becoming a hot issue, the editor of the free-market advocacy Reason Magazine and the Executive Director of America's largest environmental organization exchange ideas about Industrial Strength Recreation.

 

ECO-CONTRADICTIONS By Virginia Postrel

In October Eco-Terrorists struck in Colorado. Their target wasn't a traditional bad guy: not a logging operation, an oil rig, a dam or a whaling ship. It was a ski resort.

The Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for a $12 million fire that destroyed a restaurant, a ski patrol office and four chair lifts at the Vail Resort. The group vowed that "we will be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and unroaded areas."

"Wild and unroaded areas" are dear to the hearts of American environmentalists. But so are outdoor sports, including skiing. Recreation has long been the green alternative to such economic activities as logging or mining. In much of the western U.S., tourism and recreation indeed dwarf traditional extractive industries.

Now environmentalists are getting disillusioned with recreation. It attracts crowds. It requires infrastructure—ski lifts, accessible campgrounds. It encourages beautiful landscapes rather than authenticity or biodiversity or other ecological goals. It brings "sprawl."

These anti-recreation views aren't limited to a terrorist fringe. They're widespread. I heard them again and again at a recent conference with a bunch of mostly sensible, innovative, open-minded environmentalists.

"Now that the timber industry is practically dead on the national forests, many environmentalists are demonizing 'industrial recreation' on public lands," says Randal O'Toole, director of the Thoreau Institute in Oregon and an iconoclastic environmentalist who has long criticized the U.S. Forest Service. "Basically the attitude is that no one should be allowed on public lands unless they can get there under their own power."

This sort of thinking could destroy the popular base on which environmentalists depend. Suburban Sierra Club supporters aren't about to give up their skis and four-by-fours—much less their vacations in the great outdoors, where beauty and adventure are as important as ecological preservation.

Despite its ascetic ideology, the environmental movement thrives on wealth and pleasure.

Jet skis, snowmobiles and powerboats have long been green bętes noires. They're noisy, macho and blue collar—not the choice of the cappuccino crowd. But the latest target of environmentalist scorn is decidedly upscale: the high-priced helicopter flights that show tourists the glories of the Grand Canyon and Hawaii's volcanoes. Under pressure from greens, Senators Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have backed legislation to restrict the tours.

Helicopter tours appeal to visitors with more money than time, those who aren't in shape for long hikes, those who prefer air-conditioned comfort and those who want a bird's-eye view of these spectacular sites. The flights offend people who believe they have a right to contemplate nature undisturbed. "We must move quickly to save our parks from the din of machinery," former Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Blocking the majority of taxpayers from enjoying the parks they supposedly own may please those who prefer a nonpowered approach to nature. But these more physical types may have their fun threatened, too.

Today's outdoor enthusiasts don't just enjoy nature. They lust after gear: high-tech rock-climbing equipment, "technical" clothing, ingenious backpacks, weatherproof cameras. Purists sniff at such consumerist technophilia. Under the umbrella of "Teaming with Wildlife," nearly 3,000 environmental groups are campaigning for a 5% federal excise tax on outdoor equipment, with the money to go to state conservation programs. They sell the idea as a "user fee," but it's really a sin tax. Most backpacks, cameras and sport-utility vehicles never make it to the mountains. And if you camp without fancy gear, you get the benefit without paying the "fee."

Despite its ascetic ideology, the environmental movement thrives on wealth and pleasure. Its great power comes from the joy that affluent, leisure-rich people take in the outdoors. "The environment" is a cherished consumer good. Republican politicians have learned that lesson the hard way. Greens may be next.

 


Virginia Postrel is the editor of Reason Magazine and a columnist for Forbes. Her book, The Future and its Enemies, has just been published by the Free Press. E-mail: vpostrel@reason.com

This article appeared in Forbes Magazine on November 30, 1998. © 1998 Forbes Inc.

Letter to the Editor: Forbes Magazine

Written by Carl Pope, Executive Director Sierra Club

Dear Editor:

The November 30, 1998 article, "ECO-CONTRADICTIONS" by Virginia Postrel contains a number of distortions, mistaken assumptions, and fallacies that require a response.

First, the "grabber" of this article may have led readers to believe that the recent arson of a ski resort in Vail was somehow indicative of the actions of environmental groups. This is patently false. The Sierra Club loudly and repeatedly condemned the arson. The arson was an act of terrorism, not environmentalism. The Sierra Club, and other mainstream environmental organizations, deplore such acts of violence and will continue to condemn them.

Second, Postrel mistakenly asserts that "environmentalists are getting disillusioned with recreation." The responsible and broader environmentalist segment recognizes a need for recreation AND the increasing need to weigh what the consuming public demands against the protection of our natural environment. The nurturing and survival of this environment means the survival of the planet, and ultimately that same consuming public.

Many environmentalists are concerned that backers of jet skis, snowmobiles, powerboats, and other forms of motorized recreation would see the use of these vehicles expanded on public lands with little regard for local environments. I, for one, would look forward to seeing a responsibly conducted, inclusive analysis of the effect motorized recreation has on the rights of others and on the ecosystems on which they intrude.

The real eco-contradiction is not about the public using public lands. It's about corporate America assuming operational control of public lands so a privileged FEW of the public may use them. In recent years federal recreational land managers have had to endure severe funding cuts. This funding is being replaced by partnerships with private industry, which are a first step in privatizing the stewardship of public lands. It is a fair assumption that the private industry members of these partnerships are motivated by profit, and it is not a far stretch to conclude that motorized recreation is far more profitable than non-motorized.

I would be remiss if I didn't add that the Sierra Club is concerned about two things: First, that there will be pressure from these commercial partners to "Disney-fy" public lands and parks with minimum consideration to the short and long-term effects on the environment. Second, that the driving force behind Fee Demo is advocating use fees for low impact users, not to cover expenses, but for whatever the traffic will bear to line the pockets of private corporations.

While Postrel asserts that the "environmental movement thrives on wealth and pleasure" the OPPOSITE is true. The environmental movement thrives on the "blood, sweat, and tears" of volunteers, many of whom, if not most, are NOT leisure-rich or affluent. Rather, they are average Americans who would like their grandchildren to be able to grow up in a country where there are still some mountains unscarred by ski runs, and where lakes teem with wildlife rather than with motorboats and jet skis.

The environment is more than a "cherished consumer good," as Ms. Postrel concludes. It is our natural heritage. Our very survival depends on it.

Sincerely,

Carl Pope, Executive Director Sierra Club


This letter was sent to Forbes Magazine by Mr. Pope and will be reprinted in the February edition of "The Yodler", a newsletter of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club.

To learn more about the organizations whose views appear above:

REASON, an independent monthly magazine of "free minds and free markets," covers politics, culture and ideas from a dynamic libertarian perspective. As a prominent network news correspondent puts it: "Thank goodness for REASON...one sane voice fighting tons of nonsense."

SIERRA CLUB: "To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environments."

 


This document was prepared by Wild Wilderness. To learn more about ongoing industry-backed congressional efforts to motorize, commercialize, and privatize America's public lands, contact:

Scott Silver, Executive Director,
Wild Wilderness
248 NW Wilmington Avenue,  Bend  OR 97701
Phone (541) 385-5261    E-mail: ssilver@wildwilderness.org