Clouds are building overhead, and as rain begins to fall we gather the maps and retreat to the lodge to watch a video about low-impact practices in the backcountry. The earnest, well-scrubbed hosts look as if they have just emerged from hot tubs in Aspen. Hikers, they tell us, should never walk single-file lest they unnecessarily break a new trail. Campfires should be built on fireproof cloths spread atop rocks, and the ashes buried. Dishes must be washed with water and spruce combs. In the wilderness, toilet paper is a luxury.
Jeff is showing us this video, I gather, not because he endorses it, but because he believes it’s an example of the politically misbegotten nonsense that sensible people in the outdoor-recreation business have to confront all the time. For well-heeled hunters, he and the outfitters at COAGS regularly run mule trains into the backcountry carrying tons of equipment – mammoth tents, entire kitchens, food, water, medicine for dozens of people and animals. In one legendary exploit, an outfitter packed a grand piano into Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness.
“Leave-no-trace is impossible, in my opinion,” Jeff says after the video ends. “But do we want to make it a shithole out there? Absolutely not. Some of these rules are positive, like not cutting corners on switchbacks. But the rules are different in every forest. As a commercial outfitter, you will always have a mandated set of rules to follow from the government.” Like Ed Abbey, who famously flaunted the rules in his beloved canyon country, Jeff seems less perturbed by any specific decree than by the whole body of them – and by the nauseating idea that people less competent than he want to tell him what to do. While many of us regard the wilderness as a place of escape, Jeff, it appears, has seen enough to know better. Where once there was freedom, there is now regulation.
There is frustration in his voice now, and a little anger. As Jeff tells it, there is a battle being fought for the outdoors. On one side are pointy-headed Washington rulemakers and misguided environmentalists who wish to preserve public land in a pristine state, untouched by human hands. On the other are recreation enthusiasts who believe that God put nature here to be used – wisely, of course, but used.
“The wilderness has to be available to everyone in this country,” Jeff says. “Llama-packers, hunters, ATVers, motorcyclists. Everyone has a right to an outdoor part of the ground they’re paying for. But some groups push for other groups not to be able to use public land, and if we keep alienating each other – the snowmobilers from the hikers, the ATVers from the mountain bikers – then pretty soon we all lose strength.”
Most hikers I know believe that safeguarding the environment is the answer, not the problem. But listening to Jeff, I can see how baffling it must be to people who make their living in the wilderness that so many of us regard it as a sort of gigantic terrarium that must be sealed off from noxious human influences. To someone like Jeff, a wilderness without people is a wasteland, and any effort to rid it of them is an attempt to remake nature into something it never was. Here’s something I think hunters know that hikers forget: We belong outdoors. It is our first home. Not having the skill – and attitude – to survive there is like not having a key to your own front door.