Monday, July 31, 2023

Kicking nature's bucket list

Morning Sunlight, Bentley Nature Preserve, Ellicott, New York

When I wrote last month about learning to appreciate nature in my own backyard, I expected it to be timely only in the context of such an image making it into an art exhibit. But over the past month, there have been new debates over how much access the public should have to popular wilderness areas. As access becomes more restricted, we may all have to start appreciating backyards more.

National parks like Glacier and Arches have visitation quotas, requiring advance reservations and tickets that are good for a specific window of time. Yosemite may be returning to such a system.

The Enchantments, a spectacular wilderness area of jagged mountains and alpine lakes in Washington state, may soon sharply restrict day hiking. For decades, it’s been nearly impossible to win an overnight camping permit there. To at least get a glimpse of the mountains, hordes of people have been attempting to do the grueling 14-mile hike in one day, causing safety and other issues.

While I have never seen the Enchantments with my own eyes, and likely never will, I have occasionally won a wilderness lottery. I had the pleasure of photographing petrified sand dunes, known as the Wave, in the Coyote Buttes Wilderness of Arizona. Just 64 people per day are allowed to do the hike. You have about a 5% chance of getting a permit through its lottery system.

Canyon From Above, The Wave, Coyote Buttes Wilderness, Arizona

It was wonderful to be able to photograph the feature in relative peace, although to improve my odds, I applied for a permit in the hottest time of year. Hiking and carrying camera equipment across the blistering southwest desert was not only uncomfortable, but elevated personal risk.

And that’s a big downside to these lotteries. If you’re lucky enough to get a ticket, you may make riskier decisions to avoid blowing your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I saw this firsthand when climbing Mount St. Helens.

Climbing permits there are also awarded through a lottery system. I was part of a climbing party that managed to get a permit for a day in autumn when the weather for climbing is rarely ideal. My group wanted to push through rain and extremely limited visibility to avoid “wasting” our one chance to summit. We continued climbing even as the weather worsened. We could barely see where we were going. One other person and I reiterated how dangerous this climb was becoming. Eventually, common sense prevailed.

The thing is, if it weren’t for the lottery system, we wouldn’t have even tried to climb that day. We would have taken one look at the weather forecast and stayed home.

I don’t think we adequately consider the potentially disastrous side effects of these wilderness lotteries. But I also don’t think fragile areas can support unlimited tourism either.

More people are interested in being out in nature, which I think is a good thing overall. But it’s not if the idea of being out in wilderness is ultimately just about checking things off someone elset’s bucket list.

People flock to the Enchantments because it made one of those “10 hikes you must do before you die” list. So did the Wave. Although, it’s not just hikes.

African Lion at Sunrise, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Many people on African wildlife safaris are laser-focused on the Big 5: lion, elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard. They push the guides to deliver each of the animals on the list, ignoring anything else that might be worthwhile.

To some degree, we all have a fear of missing out. We have limited time to spend in nature. If someone says you absolutely must hike to the Enchantments or see a lion, we don’t want to make the mistake of choosing a lesser activity.

That said, we also miss out when our experiences are driven only by another’s eyes. For all the talk of wilderness areas being overrun by visitors, you may think it’s impossible to find solitude in a park. Just this month, however, there were several occasions where I had entire parks to myself. Granted, they weren’t national parks, but they were amazing in their own way.

Leaning Trees, Bentley Nature Preserve, Ellicott, New York

While in western New York I stumbled upon a small neighborhood park that had a wildflower trail. This year’s wildflowers had faded away before I got there, but I found the trail that followed a small creek through mature forest enchanting, nonetheless. Light filtered through the forest in interesting ways. The flowing water provided a soothing background track for the bird songs that filled the air.

The preserve spans just 40 acres, but I enjoyed it so much I made a second hike through it. On my way out, it offered one more surprise.

I took the time to read the sign at the trailhead. It turns out that in 1933, the famed naturalist Roger Tory Peterson spent the summer exploring these very same woods, then known as the Bentley Sanctuary, noting each of the 70 different bird species he found and mapping 60 nest sites. The next year he would go on to publish his first field guide, which would help popularize birding.

Snapped Snag, Bentley Nature Preserve, Ellicott, New York

I mention this only to point out that this site isn’t on any “must see” list. I couldn’t even find a single image of it in the files of a major stock photography agency. But I felt inspired by the preserve, and I now know that I wasn’t the only one.

Any discussion of new access restrictions naturally focuses on what we are going to lose. I think it’s helpful to remind ourselves from time to time how much more is out there, if only our minds are open to exploring.

(Prints of Kevin Ebi's images are available through Learn about new work by joining his mailing list.)

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