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Just the backdrop?

Paul Andersen

Millions of people have seen the Maroon Bells, but only a few have stood on top. Those who have climbed the Bells understand them through a physical relationship. Geography and topography become intimate when measured with your own two feet. As icons of wilderness, the Bells are famously known as some of the most-photographed mountains in the world. They adorn calendars, real estate brochures, and countless picture frames in homes around the world. The gulf between knowing those mountains intimately and knowing them as a pretty picture is as wide as the Grand Canyon. Apply that separation to the entire western landscape, and you’ve got the gist of a disturbing essay by Hal Rothman.Rothman, one of the nation’s leading experts on tourism, travel and postindustrial economies, describes in his recent essay, “Goodbye Preservation, Hello Recreation,” a separation between the traditional values of wilderness and the emergent values of recreation.”In the American West,” he writes, “the age of preservation has ended and that of recreation has begun.” Recreation, he claims, is represented by a young, highly mobile constituency demanding fast, easy access to the wilds.The age of preservation began with Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and others who saw the value of saving what Rothman calls “sacred space” and “beautiful and remote” places. This led to the environmental movement of the ’60s and ’70s, which generated powerful political advocacy in the wake of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.””These principles have now grown stale and even archaic,” writes Rothman. “Environmentalism is a set of values, not the Ten Commandments. As a value system, it has to compete for adherents.”Today, that competition comes with fast-paced, often motorized activities that are sold as spectacles that take center stage in the mountain West, often in conflict with wilderness and preservation.”Wilderness is dead,” suggests Rothman, “not as reserved land, but as a movement or a viable political strategy. Its constituency is aging and it is losing political support to recreation by leaps and bounds.” Support for wilderness, as it’s defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964, may be in jeopardy, given a dramatic shift in demographics. Wilderness is protected by an act of Congress, but all that could change under new political pressures. The X Games are a prime example of the kind of motorized, technological spectacle that vies for adherents through a commercially hyped three-ring circus of constant stimulation. What place has placid wilderness, except as a background for the noise and thrall of adrenal sports powered by Red Bull? Rothman observes that recreationalists take pleasure in “scenery, beauty, and the challenge of the outdoors; they just tend to do so more and more with technology.” This means a lesser degree of physical intimacy with wild places, resulting in a separation that could have dire consequences for future preservation. Instead of serene wilderness, today’s recreationalists are inspired by a motocross rider or snowmobiler flying upside down over a jump, a snowboarder spinning a 1080, a freestyle skier defying gravity on a superpipe. “They are post-literate, twelve-images-per-second beings,” says Rothman of the growing recreation contingent.Hype and spectacle have been prominent influences since the Roman coliseum promoted the first gladiatorial combat, and adherents to stimulating entertainment are easily won today with Jumbotrons, noise, celebrity worship, noise, high-powered machines, noise, sponsor giveaways and more noise.Wilderness has no such promotion and, in fact, provokes the opposite response. Only experience in the wilds, like the sense of wonder one derives from standing on top of the Maroon Bells, can speak to the deeper values of preservation. But first you must get there on your own two feet.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.


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