Forbes , November 29, 1998
IN OCTOBER ECO-TERRORISTS STRUCK in Colorado. Their target wasn't a traditional bad guy: not a logging operation, an oil rig, a dam or a whaling ship. It was a ski resort.
The Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for a $12 million fire that destroyed a restaurant, a ski patrol office and four chair lifts at the Vail Resort. The group vowed that "we will be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and unroaded areas."
"Wild and unroaded areas" are dear to the hearts of American environmentalists. But so are outdoor sports, including skiing. Recreation has long been the green alternative to such economic activities as logging or mining. In much of the western U.S., tourism and recreation indeed dwarf traditional extractive industries.
Now environmentalists are getting disillusioned with recreation. It attracts crowds. It requires infrastructure—ski lifts, accessible campgrounds. It encourages beautiful landscapes rather than authenticity or biodiversity or other ecological goals. It brings "sprawl."
These anti-recreation views aren't limited to a terrorist fringe.
They're widespread. I heard them again and again at a recent conference with a bunch of mostly sensible, innovative, open-minded environmentalists.
"Now that the timber industry is practically dead on the national forests, many environmentalists are demonizing 'industrial recreation' on public lands," says Randal O'Toole, director of the Thoreau Institute in Oregon and an iconoclastic environmentalist who has long criticized the U.S. Forest Service. "Basically the attitude is that no one should be allowed on public lands unless they can get there under their own power."
This sort of thinking could destroy the popular base on which environmentalists depend. Suburban Sierra Club supporters aren't about to give up their skis and four-by-fours—much less their vacations in the great outdoors, where beauty and adventure are as important as ecological preservation.
Jet skis, snowmobiles and powerboats have long been green btes noires. They're noisy, macho and blue collar—not the choice of the cappuccino crowd. But the latest target of environmentalist scorn is decidedly upscale: the high-priced helicopter flights that show tourists the glories of the Grand Canyon and Hawaii's volcanoes. Under pressure from greens, Senators Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have backed legislation to restrict the tours.
Helicopter tours appeal to visitors with more money than time, those who aren't in shape for long hikes, those who prefer air-conditioned comfort and those who want a bird's-eye view of these spectacular sites.
The flights offend people who believe they have a right to contemplate nature undisturbed. "We must move quickly to save our parks from the din of machinery," former Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, writes in the Los Angeles Times.
Blocking the majority of taxpayers from enjoying the parks they supposedly own may please those who prefer a nonpowered approach to nature. But these more physical types may have their fun threatened, too.
Today's outdoor enthusiasts don't just enjoy nature. They lust after gear: high-tech rock-climbing equipment, "technical" clothing, ingenious backpacks, weatherproof cameras. Purists sniff at such consumerist technophilia. Under the umbrella of "Teaming with Wildlife," nearly 3,000 environmental groups are campaigning for a 5% federal excise tax on outdoor equipment, with the money to go to state conservation programs. They sell the idea as a "user fee," but it's really a sin tax.
Most backpacks, cameras and sport-utility vehicles never make it to the mountains. And if you camp without fancy gear, you get the benefit without paying the "fee."
Despite its ascetic ideology, the environmental movement thrives on wealth and pleasure. Its great power comes from the joy that affluent, leisure-rich people take in the outdoors. "The environment" is a cherished consumer good. Republican politicians have learned that lesson the hard way. Greens may be next.