A recent trip to Utah had me standing in the shadows of giant sandstone arches, their curves the places where the brush which painted the deserts left canvas, lifting oranges and reds up into clear blue skies. Nature needs no input in these places but merely to be left alone. Perfection without input is a concept humans struggle to understand.
I went on this trip to Arches National Park during fall, when school was in session to avoid major crowds. As with most of the major National Parks (Yosemite, Zion, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, etc.), the parking lots were still nearly filled. Hiking trails filled with people moving to and from main attractions closely resembled ants going to and from crumbs, bumping into each other and communicating "almost there, it's worth it!". I was one of the ants heading to Delicate Arch, named so I'm guessing due to it's position at the top of a massive rock hill which funnels down to a small sandy area dotted with desert flora. The rim to Delicate Arch was crowded with hundres of people enjoying the view. A line of about 30-40 people long led to a photo op below the arch. I knew I wasn't going to get any shot I wanted, so I hiked around to see the arch from the other side.
Let me pause here to first admit something which is true and should be obvious of every one of us, yet still needs to be said - none of us are the perfect outdoors person. Heck, none of us are the perfect indoors person. We spill, forget to put coasters down, and let the dishes pile up. I have bagged a lot of peaks, camped in snow, cleaned up areas to be more enjoyable for the next person, and don't use "but it's biodegradable" as an excusable reason to leave land littered with orange/banana peels, dog poo, or anything else I have brought in. This being said, outside is more and more unfamiliar territory for most and brings greater opportunity for human error. I still make stupid, ignorant, and unobservant errors (flashback to me, earlier this month, cutting a switchback short and bringing my dog on a no dogs trail by honest mistake). The only thing I have going for me is that I am outside more often than not, enough at least to notice my own shortcomings and those of my fellow outdoors person.
A mistake people often make outside is the same we make in any relationship or endeavor - we become critical of others for their shortcomings while defending our own. The key I've found to enjoy the outdoors in an increasingly responsible way is to be open to the fact that I don't know everything and never will. Even becoming an expert in one area does not mean there is nothing left to learn or that I need to make excuses when someone points out opportunity to improve. We are all at some point or another the newest and thus least knowledgeable person in the room on a subject. There is no better way to learn than to become aware of our ignorance with the aim to understand. There is no better way to teach than to remember being this person.
My visit to Delicate Arch brought me to better understand the ideal of learning and educating with the aim to protect. The lesson started when I heard the "plink, plink, plink" of a plastic bottle rolling down the steep rock face below the arch. The bottle came to a rest at the sand pit a hundred feet down. No one was making moves to retrieve the bottle, so I decided to go down to retrieve it myself. Walking down only took about five minutes or so, but as soon as I got to the bottom I heard it again "plink, plink, plink", this time a Gatorade bottle still half full of blue liquid tumbled down and landed next to a water bottle. After about ten minutes of searching in and around the brush I found over 40 plastic bottles, handfuls of wrappers, and a camera lens cap. I put all of it into a pile, stuffed the wrappers into a pocket, crushed the bottles down to the smallest size I could, and emptied my pack of all camera gear so I could hike the it all out out.
This is the other side of the arch, the other side of the successful push to get people outside. My hope for more friends to go outdoors also brings about worry to what our excitement about natural beauty will do to the land through gross negligence and innocent ignorance alike. Those whose lifestyle heavily involves the outdoors have felt a bit of panic and chagrin towards those who look to use nature rather than be a part of it. This comes from watching the effect the recent spike of human presence is having on the experience and ecology of nature. Seeing landscapes as quickly as they have in recent years is alarming. Photographers fear sharing beautiful locations of their photos lest those places become another one of the exploited, overrun, and sometimes shut down places no longer allowed to be enjoyed. Many who feel a relationship to these lands worry those who come in the future will not care enough to learn how to protect it well, leaving it different than they came and less of the experience which attracted them in the first place. I've felt this in the plastic bottles in Arches, in the toilet paper all around Big Sur, with each chipmunk being fed in peak season at Zion and Yosemite which will die when Nature Valley bars become short in supply in the off season. Frustration builds with every orange peel left on a rock in Joshua tree, initials carved into ancient redwoods or sprayed onto rocks in Utah, rock formations knocked over, and cigarette butts flung into the dirt after someone adds the last hashtag to their post.
Conservation and preservation are and always will be an ongoing movement. We must understand with how we struggle maintaining something perfect, allowing it to function absent of human fetters, and must do this by constantly being student-teachers when we pursue a relationship with nature. Pretentious more-outdoorsy-than-thou attitudes and online arguments are not the answer. What will help is loving the land enough to turn the other cheek, using as much energy to pack out someone elses garbage as we do to talk to those around us in a way helping them to realize why something has stayed beautiful, and thus how to be in relation in a way where the beauty stays intact.
We can do this by being a little more open to how we communicate about the outdoors (save the mocking and pretentious talk for conversations over #vanlife buildouts, please). What I'm asking us to talk about is the giant influx of people into nature, the balance of being free and respecting what allows us to feel that freedom, and along the way how to stay open to learning without becoming defensive. People should be getting outside, I'm a huge believer in that, but we need to learn how to handle it without getting in a fight over how to do so. We must, because it's what will prevent trampling down popular areas, neglecting to preserve that which makes the shot special in the first place solely to get a shot for Instagram.
We've got people getting healthy, enjoying the natural world, and being aware of places like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument which needs to be protected from irreversible damage. This also means we have thousands of us who would sign petitions to save land coming to the very places we want to protect without realizing we are also causing damage. The sheer volume of visitors is bound to leave an impact. Even my small mistakes left repeatedly unchecked have the potential to ravish not only the aesthetic beauty of a land but also the base functionality of an ecosystem.
Looking from other side of the arch can be disheartening, but I believe it can stay beautiful. This starts with understanding I can sometimes be part of the problem, but I aim to be a student-teacher of the solution. By having a mentality of humility, to be educators and educated, we should be able to stop the widening of the crack in these places we love.