DENVER — For decades, environmentalists have concentrated their ire on the effects timbering, mining, and livestock grazing have on public lands. Now activists are shifting their focus to an industry with at least as much heritage in the United States, yet which only recently has been seen as a threat: Tourism.
With more people than ever visiting public lands and recreation areas, environmentalists argue this use is taking a heavy toll.
From the plight of endangered species like the manatee in the tourist mecca of Florida's swampland to the geological impacts of Arizona's man-made Glen Canyon recreation area, the cost of the public's enjoyment of nature is emerging nationwide as a heated topic. A recent example of the tension was the arson in the ski resort town of Vail, Colo. While more extreme than most environmentalists condone, it targeted development plans that have long caused concerns within the community.
The question at the heart of the debate: Are public lands an amenity for citizens, or do they merit preservation for their own sake? It is a dilemma with special significance in the West, where 57 percent of land is federally owned. And in the past decade, unprecedented population growth has taken its own toll.
Part of that is an increase in visits to wilderness areas. "We are big advocates of the public using public lands.... But as a society, we have to decide how much is enough," says Mike Bader, director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies in Missoula, Mont. "It's a clich, but we don't want to love it to death."
Sustainability has become a dominant theme for the tourism industry, says Patrick Long, a business professor at the University of Colorado's Center for Sustainable Tourism in Boulder. "If you allow [tourism] to get out of hand, you're going to get a negative reaction."
In this age of all-terrain vehicles, personal watercraft, snowmobiles, and helicopter tours over national parks, some believe American tourism teeters on the brink of excess. The national park system alone last year hosted 279 million visitors (by comparison, the total US population is 245 million). "It's a pile of people," says David Barna, spokesman for the National Park Service. "Every year for the past 40 years we've been getting about 10 million more visitors."
Wildlife advocates see danger in this combination of noise, pollution, and sheer numbers. "In Yellowstone, there are 2,000 to 3,000 snowmobiles a day. You can't sustain this much use," says Mr. Bader.
Now, the National Park Service is at the center of a controversy over whether limits should be imposed on motor-powered vehicles. A pending proposal restricts personal watercraft - also called jet skis - in certain parks, but allows them in most national recreation areas. Many conservationists think this doesn't go far enough. But park officials say a variety of activities are appropriate on public lands.
"There are lots of impacts on wildlife, and the effects from personal watercraft are pretty insignificant," says Derrick Crandall, president of the American Recreation Coalition. "We're not saying you should put snowmobiles and cross-country skiers on the same trail. But it's not either-or.... What this nation needs is more trails."
Environmentalists generally argue for the reverse. With 373,000 miles of National Forest roads - 8 times the total mileage of the US Interstate highways - activists have long clamored for closure of forest roads and jeep trails. The Forest Service has of late been limiting new roads and closing old ones. Still, there is no consensus on whether it's less harmful to sensitive species to spread out or further concentrate recreational use.
Some challenge whether any foray into the wild should be motor-powered. "Why not walk into a park? People's enjoyment of nature shouldn't be predicated by the use of machines," says Theresa Kintz, an editor at Earth First! Journal, in Eugene, Ore.
Earth First!, which Ms. Kintz terms "a philosophy, not an organization," might be described as the antithesis of commercialism. "Tourism represents only regard for humans," she says. "But these ecosystems have a right to exist beyond their value to humans."
As for the attack on Vail, Kintz says she does not condone it. "But I think that it speaks to the depth of people's despair about the state of the natural world."
Although an environmental group's claim of responsibility for the arson has not been confirmed, most agree that seeds for such an act were long in cultivation.
The ski industry "generates lots of environmental problems - enormous traffic, air pollution, water pollution, and costs to society, " says Tom Lustig, a lawyer for the National Wildlife Federation. Most of the country's ski areas operate on Forest Service land.
As more rural communities look to tourism to provide economic stability and jobs, such effects must be weighed, says Mr. Long of Colorado University. "As a matter of economic strategy, what you want is something you can do long term."