A hard look at outdoor rec’s influence — and cost

The outdoor industry fills a unique role in the West as a political force and as an entity getting more people outside.


Every month, every season, for the last three years, I have trudged up some snowy slope with skis on my back, then skied back down. I’m part of a small community of die-hards who have embarked on a project we call “turns all year”: We never let a month pass without skiing. In winter, this pursuit is logical, even fun. But in summer, it gets ridiculous. One August, I walked up Peak Nine in Breckenridge, Colorado, as a few hundred Spartan racers passed me by, in order to ski 100 rough yards of dirt-coated snow. I’ve been laughed at by picnicking Mennonites, frolicking children and happy hikers with boomboxes. I’ve also gotten the most fun turns of my life on grubby patches of snow it took me two hours to walk to.

We who live in the West are defined and sustained by the landscapes we inhabit; we are part of a culture rooted in the outdoors. Outdoor recreation and travel through the American West are a big part of life for many out here, and the issue you hold in your hands takes a hard look at outdoor recreation’s influence — and its costs.

The outdoor industry often aligns itself with environmentalists, flexing its economic muscle to defend Bears Ears National Monument and demand action on climate change. But closer examination complicates this alliance. There’s mounting evidence that recreation, like all human activity, takes a toll on every ecosystem we travel through. Our writers explore how the push to allow mountain bikes in wilderness has aligned some recreationists with anti-public-land proponents, for example, and whether playing in the outdoors actually inclines people to defend the environment.

Meanwhile, the outdoor industry is still coming to terms with the changes social media has wrought, including the opening of a once-insular world. As Jane C. Hu writes, social media has encouraged those traditionally excluded from outdoor activities to carve out a space and to demand changes in the industry.

Kate Schimel, deputy editor, digital
Brooke Warren/NewTowncarShare News

But as our cover story shows, the digital universe’s abundance of tools and tips hasn’t necessarily made us safer in the backcountry. Correspondent Sarah Tory describes how social media makes rad adventures seem easy, obscuring the potentially life-threatening dangers encountered along the way. A quick Google search gives potential peakbaggers detailed guides on 14ers.com, but it’s harder to access the training needed to use that information safely.

My own “turns all year” project would not be possible without social media, at least not for me: I scope out routes using Instagram, looking for the telltale patch of snow in the background of someone’s selfie. But come summer, I’ll think twice about following the trail from app to adventure, and also consider the costs of my year-round fun.

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