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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Guiding Urban Cowboys

Air Date: Week of

In the West, mining and logging have traditionally been targets of environmentalists, but commentator and Colorado trail guide Susannah Wright says that tourism, once touted for its promise of non-extractive income, is beginning to take an equally serious toll on the environment.


CURWOOD: Historically, much of the American West is rooted in logging and mining. Now, many say tourism is a promising alternative to the old extractive industries. But Susannah Wright, who works as a guide in the Colorado mountains, has come to believe that, like the loggers and miners of old, today's tourists are also plundering the wilderness.

WRIGHT: Last summer, my husband and I were guiding a horseback ride when a woman remarked that it must have been a lot of work planting all the wildflowers along our trail. And we were six miles into the national forest. The flowers were in their peak in a good year, but that's not why she thought we planted them. She expected to see abundant flowers along the trail, and she expected us to make sure she did.

Yet lately, I wonder if I should continue fulfilling our clients' expectations, reassuring the city folks that wild places will always be out there, when I'm not sure of it myself. You see, the backcountry where we live and guide is descending into a lawless jungle. Roads that once rumbled with machines turning trees into board feet now cry with the high-pitched whine of all-terrain vehicles. The drivers break open locked gates and carve 2-foot ruts through closed areas. The Forest Service ranger I spoke to admits that she's burned out and is avoiding weekend patrols. "Besides," she says, "why put up No Motorized Vehicle signs when they just drive right over them?"

We usually route our trails away from the worst 4-wheel-drive damage and bring our riders to the top of Prohibition Mountain, with its 360-degree views of snow-capped peaks and rolling plains. We take them to the perfectly circular grassy meadow hidden within miles of thick timber. And we point out the elk tracks, antler rubs on the trees, and berry seeds in the bear scat.

But I'm beginning to think that it's not enough to just visit the nice places. Maybe we should also bring them through the meadows lacerated with tire tracks. Take them to the 120-year-old cabin burned to the ground by vandals. And show them the thousand-acre valley that will be subdivided for vacation homes this time next year.

They must see that a wet meadow crisscrossed with gouging tire tracks is a clear-cut. And a huge smoking fire ring filled with broken bottles and Taco Bell containers is an open pit mine. For only then will they understand that the chainsaws and dynamite have been traded for 4-wheel-drives and ATVs. And that the face of the logger and the miner is reflected in the face of the tourist.

(Music up and under: "Happy Trails to You")

CURWOOD: Commentator Susannah Wright lives in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.



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