This past summer, The Economist published an article (“Out of the Wilderness”) pointing to a decade long trend of declining outdoorsmanship in America. According to the article, national park attendance peaked in the mid-80s and has been in a steady decline since. Despite tremendous population growth in America, fewer people are visiting local parks, taking hunting and fishing trips, and making camping expeditions.
The Economist article points to many contributing factors, from rising gas prices to the increased number of urban recreational alternatives. But one fact it mentions is particularly interesting, and counter-intuitive: the Conservationist movement’s crusade to block development of camping grounds.
Conservationism, once a special interest dedicated to preserving natural parks and wilderness for human enjoyment, today strongly opposes attempts to make such parks more accessible to visitors, actively resisting development of campgrounds, resorts, and access roads, and fighting to legally cap the number of visitors to national parks.
The roots of the Conservationist movement go back to 18th and 19th century England, during the period of the Industrial Revolution. This is when, for the first time in history, economic, technological and political developments made recreational enjoyment of nature possible on a grand scale, and outdoorsmanship arose as a widespread cultural value. Many possessed the money, time, and freedom to enjoy life. People aspired to build and own summer lake houses; naturalistic hobbies such as bird-watching became popular; landscape painting emerged as a major art form; cross-country travel became a cherished recreation. Nature became a treasured value rather than merely the savage backdrop of civilization. Conservationists encouraged the full appreciation and enjoyment of that value.
Today’s conservationists no longer encourage the same attitude. Rather, conservationism has been corrupted by an environmentalist philosophy that seeks to eliminate human exploitation of the natural world—including (but not limited to) for the purposes of recreational enjoyment. On front after front, environmentalists have supported measures that make it more difficult for people to enjoy the great outdoors. Environmentalist edicts against enjoying nature range from EPA restrictions and red tape for hunting and fishing, to environment taxes on cottage homes and boats, to banning human beings from entering hundreds of miles of preserves set aside for endangered species. Even the opposition to automobile travel, because of the energy expense (the “carbon footprint”) it involves, is a direct attack on the American pastime of driving across country and stopping at parks and sites of interest.
Ask yourself the following: according to environmentalism, which is better? A family that drives 200 miles for a camping trip at a nearby state park, or a family that chooses to stay home instead to minimize its “carbon footprint”? An expensive resort built along the African Savannah to offer wilderness expeditions to thousands of American couples, or a law passed to ban such a resort because it will exploit the animals of the Savannah?
The answers to these and other similar questions are obvious. Environmentalism does not endorse outdoorsmanship. The cardinal sin, according to environmentalism, is exploiting the Earth for human ends. This is exactly what we do when we build campgrounds deep in national parks, or dot the periphery of these parks with resorts, well-paved roads, gas stations, and convenience stores.
Environmentalism is not concerned with promoting the natural world’s potential as a source of human enjoyment, but rather with protecting the natural world from human enjoyment. Man, according to environmentalism, is not the master of his environment, but a servant and steward that must place its needs above his own. A conservationist that is not conserving nature for human pleasure, is conserving it from human pleasure. If one truly loves nature as a positive value and wants to cherish and enjoy it, one must regard environmentalism, including the new conservationists, as a threat and not an ally.