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In the face of current challenges, we have an opportunity for positive change
By Allyson Gunsallus & Dani Reyes-Acosta
There are lands on this earth so spiritually alive that they light a fire in our souls. We know these places are sacred because we are spellbound by their majesty. In the aftermath of our experiences there, we recall vivid moments of deep connection with nature. These moments are slightly different for everyone, but the feeling is the same: the first time we saw the high mountains; the magic of alpenglow on the Cathedral Spires in Yosemite Valley; the ocean sunrise while surfing next to dolphins. In those moments we would do anything to preserve that sense of deep natural connection. Many of us spend the rest of our recreational lives seeking the same feeling.
In recent months, more people than ever have turned to the outdoors for a reprieve from the stress and emotional exhaustion of life. A return to “business as usual” eludes us. In addition to the regular hikers, cyclists, climbers, and surfers relying on their favorite local wild places for an escape from tensions caused by the COVID-19 public health crisis, a new generation of outdoor users is being born. This trend started soon after shelter in place and stay-at-home measures took effect. Bob Doyle, General Manager of the East Bay Regional Parks District, reported in a March 25th San Francisco Chronicle article,
“In my 45 years of park work, I’ve never seen these types of crowds, not ever. People are desperate to get outside. . . . visitation is insane.”
The increase in visitation has been so great in some areas, parks have even had to close. For instance, on May 12th, Teton Gravity Research reported that “dispersed camping in Oregon State Forests [has been] banned due to excessive trash and human waste.”
With travel curtailed, local public parks and beaches have come to occupy the general level of sanctity previously reserved for only the grandest national parks and wonders of the world. This shift creates an opportunity for us to reorganize our appreciation of public outdoor spaces and to take better care of public parks and beaches.
Putting aside the public health risks of crowds during a viral pandemic, increased visitation poses additional concerns for land managers and park infrastructure. Trash cans in parks are overflowing, creating hazards for animals and impacting flora. Local climber organizations (LCOs) are concerned about challenges and potential access issues as well, so much so that Katie Goodwin of The Access Fund organized a virtual conference on April 30th for California climbers to discuss “ideas, challenges, successes, and concerns related to promoting stewardship with your local community during the COVID-19 health crisis.” One key theme in the meeting was how to communicate good stewardship practices to land users who may be experiencing the joy and healing of outdoor recreation for the first time.
Why do people become lifelong stewards of the land? Yosemite Facelift, the largest cleanup of a national park in the country, gathers more than two thousand volunteers, a large portion of which are climbers, every year. Climbers have a unique relationship with Yosemite because they’ve toiled on the granite walls around the park, investing their literal blood and sweat in the landscape. Considering the deep emotional connection climbers have with Yosemite, it seems natural that they would be compelled to take care of the park; people take care of what they love.
Now more than ever, we love our local parks as well. We’re beginning to understand that all of our outdoor places fulfill a sacred need in our human lives. By cultivating the deep spiritual connection with our local public lands, we may be able to partner with the land in order to take care of it better, rather than treating it like an inexhaustible resource. Events like Yosemite Facelift have recognized the potential value in this shift. On May 12th, event coordinators announced it was pivoting to a virtual event and calling on people to “act local.” Historically, it’s been easy for us to feel compelled to take care of places like Yosemite; it’s now more natural than ever to extend this high level of care to local public spaces.
The current public health crisis has created the need to get outdoors more than ever. While the increase in the number of outdoor enthusiasts poses the potential risk of increased impact, it also opens the door for us to cultivate increased awareness of impact issues locally by calling on our memory of spiritual connection with sometimes distant places. In the face of new recent challenges caused by COVID-19, there is an opportunity for us to do better than before and with a newfound love for local places, improve our relationship to them.