In her book An Indigenous History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues that the United States idealizes outdoor travel to hide its colonial roots. Many Americans were brought up with the belief that our heritage was an urge to travel. Hunting “wilderness” was our right. But lost in this tradition is the recognition that our national park system was built on stolen land.
As a travel writer, I deeply believe in our human nature to explore. But historically, the manner we take advantage of our national parks has often caused damage: the genocide of indigenous communities to make “space” for outdoor recreation, the unmanageable waste that accumulates due to large crowds of tourists, the scarcity of resources for people living near parks.
The global spread of Covid-19 and accelerating climate change present even more ethical concerns: How do we balance our impulse to explore new horizons while recognizing the damage it can cause?
For tourists who want to travel ethically in US national parks, here are some tips to consider before planning your visit.
Investigate how the pandemic has affected local communities around national parks
Many travelers have been criticized last year for recklessly visiting places overwhelmed by Covid-19. This model of urban elites descending on rural communities has led to what University of Michigan professor Jean Hardy calls “Disaster gentrification”: while outdoor destinations are presented as a a place of ‘escape’, an influx of visitors can exacerbate crises for local communities.
In the Navajo Nation, parks have been closed due to Covid much longer than others across the country. Kelkiyana Yazzie, an employee of the Navajo National Monument in northern Arizona, said outside travelers often respond to closures and mask warrants with confusion and resentment without understanding how tribal communities are particularly affected.
“They were making comments like ‘I don’t understand why you’re closed, you’re in the middle of nowhere, the virus can’t get to you there,'” Yazzie said. Last November, Yazzie lost seven family members to the virus in two weeks and knew many families on the reserve who had had a similar experience to his.
Travelers should be aware of the unique strains caused by the pandemic – and adjust their expectations accordingly. Recreate Responsibility, a network of outdoor leaders who compile resources on ethical travel, has an online toolkit on how to plan park visits while managing Covid issues.
“Your relationship with a national park begins before you show up at the trailhead,” explains Eugenie Bostrom, one of the group’s leaders. “It starts with your understanding of all the ways you impact your environment. “
Consider alternatives to popular tourist destinations
Tourism in national parks has intensified dramatically in recent years, leading to overcrowding at popular attractions. In 2016 and 2017, national parks experienced the highest number of visitors on record. The Disneyfication of national parks like Zion, Yosemite, Yellowstone and others has created a new phenomenon of visitors “loving our national parks to death”.
No matter how responsible any outdoor enthusiast strives to be, Bostrom admits that “the use of the land is beyond the ability to maintain the land itself.” When Bostrom spoke to leaders of the National Park Service, they said the best way forward was to “spread love”.
“The federal government manages over 600 million acres of land across the United States. But only 80 million acres are national parks, ”Bostrom said. “There are so many other options with the ability to get more visitors.”
Those looking for hikes among Zion’s spectacular red canyons may want to visit other parts of Utah instead. Yosemite’s majestic alpine landscape is also found in the neighboring California National Forests. Most federal lands and national forests in the United States allow scattered camping, where travelers don’t have to book in advance or pay money.
Look for opportunities to recognize Indigenous communities
Before starting a hike, I use a practice I’ve learned from native environmentalists like Pinar Sinopoulos-Lloyd and Robin Kimmerer: introduce myself to the earth. This practice reframes outdoor recreation from an act that exploits the land for our own benefit to a means of building a relationship with the land by naming our intentions and expressing our gratitude.
The practice can also include learning from indigenous communities who previously managed the land. At the start of your hiking or camping adventure, take a few minutes to ask yourself: What is the racial and colonial history of this land? What actions can we take now to repair the damage already done?
Action Guides can also help travelers contribute to Indigenous-led land trusts and other environmental projects that restore land management autonomy to Indigenous leaders. (Indigenous communities control only about 2% of the land in the United States.)
Travelers may also factor in this financial contribution as a “property tax” or “land repairs” payment in their national park vacation budget.
Explore ways to let go of the chasing mindset ‘pristine wilderness‘
After years on the road, I became more aware of how my own travels reinforced a colonial idea: if I looked long enough and far enough, I might find my own version of “untouched paradise.” We focus so much on “leaving no traces” when visiting a park, but then we return to our hyper-consumer urban lifestyles which ultimately leave a huge mark on the environment.
Now, when I plan a trip, I remember that no beautiful landscape can distract from the impact we have as humans on earth every day, inside and outside of the world. parks.
Vasu Sojitra, a professional outdoor athlete, thinks this is the central problem: the false binary we have created between the “protected land” and the land we inhabit every day.
“We are always part of nature,” said Sojitra. “Once we learn to be in a symbiotic relationship with the land, we won’t need national parks anymore, nor any ‘leave no trace’ principles, nor even need to talk about ethical travel at all, because we will already be living with this mindfulness, and awareness in everything we do.