What do leaf-peepers and trophy hunters have in common? Well, to start with a few generalizations, they both come to the mountains around this time of year, most from somewhat flatter locales. Both are also primarily interested in one thing: getting the perfect shot.
For one, that perfect shot brings home a new wall decoration/bragging rights, and for the other, it wins them maybe 500 likes on Instagram. Neither one of these goals is bad, necessarily, and I know that many photographers and trophy hunters are very conscientious about their practice. Yet the reality is that more and more people are visiting the mountains for short periods of time with a single, short-term goal, participating in what I have chosen to call “single-use tourism.”
Single-use tourism can also be mountain bikers who want to experience that one awesome flow-trail we have in town; jeepers who want to get to the Crystal Mill and nowhere else; and hikers who want to check off only one trail and then go home.
Once again, I am not saying there is anything inherently bad about the people who visit us for those reasons. For generations, people have come and gone to cool places, snapped photos and shared them with their adoring fans back home. Many of us, myself included, have done the roadside attraction version of vacation at some point.
Yet, as the numbers of people who recreate in this manner has and will continue to grow, and as the places they want to reach become more remote, the impacts of this approach become more significant and more permanent.
Those impacts look like packed parking lots at the trailhead, blocking driveways or overflowing onto the highway. They look like hikers ignoring seasonal wildlife closures and leash laws. Or maybe the impact is piles of micro trash in the gravel pull-outs on Independence Pass after leaf season is over, just waiting for spring-melt to end up in our river.
Maybe it’s rutted mountain bike trails and eroded cutoffs, because, if you only came for one thing, by golly, you’re gonna ride it whether it’s muddy or not. The impacts are the roaring of engines through downtown Marble non-stop in the summer, or a Search and Rescue extraction because someone got summit fever on a trail despite weather that would have turned anyone around who valued more than just “bagging the peak.”
Whatever the single-use goal is, a growing number of visitors just want to get it and go home with their photo, their nine-point rack, their epic bro-story, or their bucket-list box checked. They didn’t have time to notice the towns, or the lives being lived around them on the way through. They didn’t need to worry about leaving a trace, or a mess, because they probably won’t be back — why would they, once they achieved their goal?
With every one of these visitors, a certain amount of tax revenue may be created. Perhaps they stop for gas, or grab a sandwich on the way through town, and because of this small windfall, we are told that their visitation is good, a healthy thing for our town and our valley. Then we appear on yet another “Top 10” list for Best Something, and are added to more bucket lists for single-use reasons.
Yet, Glenwood Springs, and every other tourism destination, especially those surrounded by sensitive natural or historic areas, is going to have to choose very clearly whether it values the land itself over the dollars the land can make. The recreation industry has been growing unchecked for decades, touted by many (myself included), as a lower-impact option to those dreaded extraction industries. In reality, however, with the rise of single-use tourism in the outdoor recreation industry, many of the millions of new visitors every year are not visiting the land because they see the lives and stories it contains, but rather for the one thing they can take from it.
In many ways, Glenwood Springs is already doing a great job. They promote long-term, quality tourism by showcasing multiple activities and sites to see. This encourages people to stay a while and get to know the town. Quality tourism allows even once-a-year visitors to establish a meaningful relationship with this place, and to see its value outside of just Insta-worthy experiences, or bucket list achievements. To know and love a place for what it is, even when and where it isn’t stunningly beautiful.
As a national model in public land management and adventure tourism economy, the more we can clearly make that statement, the better our lands and lives will be for it. It needs to happen at the state level, too, where promotion is becoming a priority over preservation. We need to help people widen their vacation tunnel vision beyond one consumable goal, and give them opportunities to appreciate how complex and beautiful the world is outside of a “Colorado’s Best Fall Views” listicle.
Lindsay DeFrates is a freelance writer living in Glenwood Springs. She can be reached at http://www.roaringforkwriter.com.