By RICHARD WINDISH
Green Mountain Club
In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey writes of his brief stint as a seasonal park ranger in the late 1950's in what was then Arches National Monument. At that time the monument was so new that it received only a handful of visitors each year. Abbey leaves his post after two years over objections to planned development and improvements to the park. He returns several years later for a third season, finding that "Progress" had arrived, "after a million years of neglect." Throughout the book, Abbey struggles with his quest to experience nature in its purest form, while decrying the arrival of "Industrial Tourism" which in his view threatens to destroy the very resource it seeks to celebrate.
Although some may question Abbey's puritanical concept of wilderness, his predictions about human impacts on natural resources have largely proven true. Over the past fifty years, public land has seen a tremendous increase in use. Where mountainous wilderness once stood untouched for thousands of years, there are now jeep trails, lodges, restaurants, ski areas, campgrounds with paved roads, showers and vending facilities, and all manner of tourist trappings. Motorized use of public land has increased dramatically in the past two decades, to the point where off-road vehicles can and do go anywhere possible.
Even "low impact" forms of outdoor recreation have had a significant impact. Where nature used to be the playground of a hearty few, millions of people are now "getting out there" in ways previously unimaginable, and many lack the basic knowledge and skills to "walk lightly upon the land." Vast improvements in technology have accommodated the shortcomings of those with limited skills sets. More people now go farther into the wilderness than ever before, and for longer periods of time. There are few places in this country that remain untouched.
The Long Trail is no stranger to this phenomenon. During the past thirty years, the trail has seen more use than it probably did in the seventy which preceded it. Development has encroached on the trail, in the form of vacation homes, ski trails, utility corridors, cell towers, and paved roads. Logging roads, snowmobile and ATV trails (both legal and illegal) now cross the trail in numerous places.
As the steward of the Long Trail, it is GMC's job to protect the trail system from the threat of development and the harm of increased human impact. To accomplish this, we spend countless hours maintaining and marking boundaries, enforcing our easements, and making sure that the land remains as untouched as possible. We utilize education and outreach to inform the public and reduce, wherever possible, the impact of humans on the land. Most importantly, we care for the land and its attendant structures so the "footprint" of human activity is as small as possible. GMC is the protector of the Long Trail System, and the last bastion of defense against the pyriad of threats to its existence.
A pivotal point in Desert Solitaire comes when Abbey, alone in his outpost at the monument, is approached by three engineers in a Jeep, there to survey a new road into what is to become a national park. He sees them as the harbingers of a bleak future filled with endless streams of tourists in motorized vehicles, a vision that quickly came to pass. Abbey knows that his pristine wilderness will soon change, so when his seasonal position is completed, he leaves and does not return again for many years. He simply cannot bear to see it.
When a scar was recently cut on GMC-conserved land on Big Jay, I immediately thought of Abbey and his apocalyptic view of human development. Two men with chainsaws caused damage so severe that it will take decades for the land to recover. This egregious tresspass demonstrates that there is no place which remains sacred, and that there are people who will do anything, at any cost, to exploit nature.
As the stewards of the Long Trail System, it is our job to protect the land against the acts of humans and their machines. Unlike Abbey, we will not abandon our post. We will avenge Big Jay, and we will restore the land to the extent possible. We will rise to the challenge, and we will protect the Long Trail for generations to come.
- Richard Windish,
Green Mountain Club