A [Sustainable] Walk in the Woods

11191379_oriWithin the last year, two major motion pictures have been made based on the pair New York Times bestsellers, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson and Wild by Cheryl Strayed. These movies have thrust two large tracts of the American wilderness into the spotlight—the 2,168.1 mile long Appalachian Trail (AT) and the 2,663 mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). In recent years, both of these trails have seen a dramatic increase in hikers. Ron Tipton, the executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy said that, “When the novel A Walk in the Woods was released in 1998 we saw an increase of over 60% for thru-hikers [over the following two years]”. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy website also notes that the trail has seen a 10% increase in thru-hikers since 2010. Presently, “an estimated 3 million people hike some portion of the Trail each year”.

There is no doubt that the increase of hikers on the AT is linked to the success of A Walk in the Woods. Since the days of Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir, nature writers have captured the imagination of the American people through their rich descriptions of the land. Describing one of his days on the Appalachian Trail Bryson writes, “Late the next morning, I stopped to wait…in a broad, ancient-seeming, deeply fetching glade cradled by steep hills which gave it a vaguely enchanted, secretive feel. Everything you could ask for in a woodland setting was here—tall, stately trees broken at intervals by escalators of dusty sunshine, winding brook, floor of plump ferns, cool air languidly adrift in a lovely green stillness.” It’s clear why prose like this has readers flocking to the woods to take in the sights for themselves. However, the job of a serious nature writer does not stop at descriptions such as this. The vocation of a nature writer is much more than just to capture the essence of a place; nature writers should also strive to act as good stewards of the places they write about through personal financial contributions and educating readers. The need for this is especially pressing on the Appalachian Trail because the presence of three million people on the trail can hardly go unnoticed, and the Appalachian Wilderness is beginning to show signs of overuse.

The success of the bestselling book and now movie have made the trail, a place that was once reserved for serious hikers, popular among casual nature enthusiasts as well, contributing to the tourism spike. Unfortunately, not all of these hikers are coming to the wilderness with pure intentions. In her article, “Can the Appalachian Trail Survive ‘A Walk in the Woods’” Kathryn Miles referenced how director of Maine’s Baxter State Park Jensen Bissell described the modern hikers of the AT.

There were too many of them, he said, and many were flouting the rules—carrying open alcohol containers, camping illegally, forging service dog papers, you name it—and the sheer volume of foot traffic was wearing down the mountain’s ecology and the trail’s integrity. Since then, as traffic has continued to rise, the problems have only gotten worse.

According to Miles’ article, the release of the movie Wild also contributed to the increase of hikers on the AT.  This overuse of the AT has led to the erosion of the Mid-Atlantic and the White Mountains and the endangerment of the Katahdin Butterfly. This is a serious concern for environmental conservationists. Even when people are doing their best to hike responsibly and follow the ‘Leave No Trace’ policy, the sheer number of hikers still poses a threat, making it harder to maintain the trails and preserve the land. Environmentalists have long been concerned with the effects humans have on the land in densely populated areas, cities, and through the farming industry, so human activity encroaching on vast wilderness spaces like the AT concerns those who want to preserve the land from the consequences of human activity. If the AT continues to be over-hiked, the land will look less and less like true wilderness. The consequences of high traffic on the trail is also a concern for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), the organization that oversees the upkeep of the trail, because the rise of hikers causes the cost upkeep to rise as well, and they rely primarily on donations.

Hawk Metheny, the New England regional director of the ATC estimated the amount of money required to counteract the impact of the film on the trail will be $650,000. The ATC is also currently seeking donations totaling $1.4 million dollars to assure “a high quality hiking experience” to visitors for years to come. Since December 10, 2015, the movie adaptation of A Walk in the Woods has grossed $ 29,489,508. This only adds to the profits of the book, which is a New York Times bestseller. Because Bill Bryson’s success as a nature writer has increased the popularity of the trail, he has a responsibility to contribute monetarily to ensure its preservation. In a society where it typically costs money to make a difference, this is an essential first step, and based on these figures, it seems that he clearly has the funds to do so.

The second step toward protecting the trail is educating the public about the importance of environmental ethics, and I am pleased to say Bryson and those involved with the film adaptation are doing their part. Robert Redford, who portrays Bill Bryson in the film adaptation of A Walk in the Woods has released a video partnered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy which focuses on the importance of the “Leave No Trace” policy and protecting the trail. This partnership movement toward restoration also has a hashtag, #ProtectYourTrail. Despite the fact it does not appear that author Bill Bryson has weighed in on this issue recently, his book does go into great depth about the importance of preserving the Appalachian woods from the man-made effects of global warming:

And there was a more compelling reason to go. a-walk-in-the-woods-book-coverThe Appalachians are the home of one of the world’s greatest hardwood forests—the expansive relic of the richest, most diversified sweep of woodland ever to grace the temperate world—and that forest is in trouble. If the global temperature rises by four degrees Celsius over the next fifty years, as is evidently possibly, the whole Appalachian wilderness below New England could become savanna. Already the trees are dying in frightening numbers. (Bryson 47).

Humans contribute to global warming primarily by burning fossil fuels which create greenhouse gas emissions, and in America, the transportation sector accounts for 27% of all greenhouse gas emissions (coming in second just behind electricity 31%). Therefore, if tourism on the AT continues to increase, the CO2 emissions from the increased travel will also rise, contributing to the scenario Bryson describes. It is vital the Bryson presents this information to readers so they can make responsible travel decisions such as avoiding air travel, opting for a fuel efficient or hybrid car, taking public transportation, or possibly even foregoing their trip to the AT altogether in favor of staying closer to home (the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions).

There is a paradox in Bryson’s concern about man-made global warming and heightened tourism on the AT. In popularizing the place, he has unintentionally put it at a greater risk. But is it fair to tell nature writers that they cannot achieve popularity or financial success because it puts the land at a higher risk for problems such as overuse? Hardly. But is it fair to encourage nature writers to use popularity and financial success to give back to the land that has inspired them? I think so.

On the other hand, a nature writer could adopt the practice of Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire where he explicitly told his readers that they should not visit Arches National Monument because their presence would destroy the beauty and solitude he had written about. Or a nature writer could be like Craig Childs and refuse to disclose the location of the remote desert places he writes about. Just like giving back to the land, each of these options has its own merit, but it is essential that the responsibility of protecting this wilderness does not stop at the writer. All visitors to natural places, especially often-visited places such as national parks and major trails, who are inspired by writers such as Bryson and Strayed should embody the role of a respectful guest (the ‘Leave No Trace’ Policy is a good source for more information). Nature writers have a unique opportunity to persuade us to act responsibly toward the places we love, but it is our duty to adhere to their advice and seek to preserve the immense beauty and complexity of the natural world that has inspired writers, artists, and adventurers for generations.


Finding a Place to Lay Your Head

In my first blog post, I defined the parameters of what ethical travel means to me. The first point dealt with transportation and following two points focused on how to act once you arrive in a place. This post will focus on lodging once you arrive at your destination.

Any given destination usually has a multitude of accommodations to choose from: hotels, campgrounds, houses, cottages, or cabins to rent, hostels, homes of friends, relatives, or even friendly strangers. So which of these options can be classified as the most efficient with the smallest environmental footprint?

Personally, I’m a big fan of camping whenever possible, and that’s primarily because I’m drawn to nature-oriented vacations in the first place. Camping also has the added benefits of being one of the cheapest options for a place to spend the night and campgrounds are usually not too hard to come by.

When cost and environmental impact are concerns, staying with a friend or relative or crashing on a couch through Couchsurfing is a great option. It’s basically free and you get to visit someone whom you probably haven’t seen in a while (or have never met at all). Plus, if this person’s schedule allows for it, you might just end up with an awesome tour guide or at least someone who knows the place well and can give you tips about how to act like a local while you’re visiting. Whatever your lodging, ethical travel is most successful when you can blend into the local lifestyle (but that’s a discussion for another time).

What I would consider the next best option (if your budget allows for it) is renting. Renting is a great way to stimulate the local economy or even just support an individual family. When my family took our trip to Montana, which I wrote about in my first post, we stayed in a vacation rental apartment which a family had built over a garage they had on their property. In a rental like ours, you have your own space to cook, amenities like bedding and towels are provided, and you have a lot of privacy.

My family has also stayed in rental cabins where we have provided our own bedding, towels, food, etc. and while that means more packing for us, it also cuts down on the waste of restocking a rental facility and the excessive housekeeping practices of many hotels and some rentals. An added benefit of rental cabins is that they have allowed us to stay right in the forest; you can’t get that with a hotel.

Hotels are typically the least environmentally-friendly option because they generate the most waste, but the expansion of the “green tourism” sector has also led to an increase of green hotels which strive for environmentally-friendly practices such as cutting down washing linens, energy efficient lighting, heating, and cooling, and low-flow shower heads and toilets, and recycling or composting programs.

Green hotels are given a rating by agencies like The Rainforest Alliance and The World Wildlife Fund. So, searching for this environmentally-friendly option when choosing your destination is another good thing to consider.

Lastly, if you end up in a regular hotel, here are some tips for minimizing impact.

  • Set your air conditioner or heater to the most efficient temperature and turn it off if possible when you leave for the day.
  • Always turn off your lights and unplug appliances when you are not in your room.
  • Ask that your sheets and towels are not changed each day. (You don’t change them that often at home anyway.)
  • Find out if your hotel has a recycling program. If it doesn’t, then save your recyclables and take them home with you to dispose of properly.
  • Avoid using any disposable items in your room that are regularly replaced. This even goes for the trash can liners. If you dispose of garbage yourself in an outside dumpster, the trash can liner will be changed less often.

As far as my trip to Colorado is concerned, I’ll be staying a friend’s house in Loveland and tenting in Estes Park.

From the Prairie to the Mountains

The issue of travel, especially in the United States where cars, highways, and air travel all reign supreme is what first made me curious about the topic of environmentally friendly tourism. Is there a way for a girl from Iowa to sustainably visit the diverse landscapes that our country has to offer?

Unfortunately, the best course of action to take when attempting to minimize the amount of CO2 emissions a trip creates is simply to travel a shorter distance. Taking trips that are closer to home or taking a vacation at home are two of the most surefire ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Now, as I’ve said before, I’m a prairie girl who loves the mountains. That doesn’t mean I don’t love where I’m from; there is much exploring to be done in the Midwest and I am a big fan of the landscape of my part of the country. But the United States is just so big and interesting, and I love seeing different parts of it.

What’s a traveler to do?

Well, if the adventure you’re seeking isn’t within the near reaches of your hometown, read on.

Let’s say that you live in Iowa and your dream trip is to the Rocky Mountains. What mode of travel will be the most practical for you and cause the least harm to the environment? (Note, when I talk about environmental harm here, I’m primarily referring to greenhouse gas emissions.)

Especially for short flights (500 miles or less), air travel is not advised as a method of transportation because it produces the most CO2 emissions per mile. The trip from my part of Iowa to Denver, Colorado is around 800 miles, so even for that distance, air travel is out. Air travel is convenient, but it also means that you lose out on a lot of good scenery along the way. So I’ll pass for the time being. However, if your trip requires you to fly, some options for reducing your carbon footprint are fuel efficient jets such as the Boeing 777 or Airbus 365 and booking nonstop, full flights whenever possible. You might have a little less space for your carry on if your flight is full, but avoiding a layover flight is definitely worth it.

The two most environmentally friendly modes of travel are train and bus. Forms of public transportation create less CO2 emissions per person because they transport groups of people at a time. Taking the bus might seem strange in a car obsessed world, but it takes the pressure off having to drive long distances alone. And trains? I think taking a trip by train would just be cool in general. I hope that I’m able to someday. Unfortunately train and bus stations are a little hard to come by in Iowa when compared to other states, so I would have to travel 162 miles by car in order to get to the nearest train station.

So how about bus stations? Well, the nearest bus station is in the next town over, but Jefferson Lines only services select states, and Colorado is not one of them. I could make it to Montana though. Which is cool. Because, of course, mountains are there, too. But if I want a bus station that can get me to Colorado, I’ll have to drive 85 miles. Then I can hop on a bus and get to Denver.

Bus and train stations sound like a great way to get to different parts of the country, but the problem is that they are still limited services in terms of where you can go and how far someone like me, who lives in a rural area, has to travel to get to such a station. There is also the issue of transportation once you reach your destination. In my case, a bus would get me as close as Denver to the mountains. Once there, I could take a shuttle from the Denver airport up to Estes Park or I would probably have to rent a car (which I’m not old enough to do).

This brings me to my next point, rental cars and general car travel. If you are a member of the population who is old enough to rent a car without racking up a ton of additional costs, here are some things to consider.

  • Rent the smallest car possible or opt for a hybrid (you’ll create fewer emissions and save money on gas).
  • Pack as lightly as possible. More weight means more fuel must be consumed.
  • Ensure that the vehicle is in good working order and use the cruise control as much as possible to obtain high fuel efficiency (keeping you save and saving money).

At least until I’m older, my most efficient and environmentally friendly option for travel from Iowa to Colorado would probably be asking my dad if I can borrow his hybrid to make the trip. However, a bus trip to a different location where I can still get to my beloved mountains is definitely worth taking into consideration.

Once you arrive at your destination (whether by some form of public transportation or by car), it is best to travel with your own power whenever possible. Walking, hiking, bicycling, sailing, and kayaking are all wonderful past times, but it is important to remember that they are all legitimate forms of transportation as well.

The last thing a traveler can do is buy carbon credits to offset the emissions created by traveling: donate to an organization that promotes healthy forestry, or even plant their own trees as a personal form of carbon credit (click on this link to learn more about carbon credits).

The Problem with Definitions

Delving into the topic of eco travel, I was met with the barrage of jargon that has come to characterize the modern day environmental culture. Ideas like: green, sustainable, responsible, ethical, environmentally-friendly—and the too-common practice of tacking the prefix “eco” on to basically everything. Does anyone actually know what any of this stuff means? Or is it all just a bunch of words that marketers and travelers alike hide behind in their attempts to persuade people that they are doing a good thing? And if we’re serious about wanting to minimize our impact on the environment while traveling, how do we decide what to call it to avoid the “eco-lingo confusion”?

Well, let’s take a look at some dictionary definitions, for starters.

Green (adjective): advocating environmental protection

Sustainable: (of economic development, energy sources) capable of being maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage

Responsible: answerable or accountable, as for something within one’s power, control, or management

Ethical: being in accordance with the rules or standards for right conduct or practice

Environmentally friendly/ eco-friendly: a marketing term referring to goods and services, laws, guidelines and polices that inflict reduce, minimal, or no harm upon ecosystems or the environment.

Let me offer a couple of theories about the origin of this onslaught of eco-language. First, to throw out another buzzword, let’s talk about “greenwashing”. Simply put, greenwashing is the practice of making something seem more ”eco-friendly” than it actually is. Most of the words mentioned above are ambiguous, an ambiguity certain people use to deceive others and to make a profit. It’s easy to characterize a practice as “green”, “environmentally friendly”, or “sustainable” when there is little pressure to clearly define what actions or regulations stem from those words.

With the rising interest in environmental awareness, corporations stand ready to capitalize on the profits they can make from merely labeling a product or service as “green”. People want “green,” so label what you have to sell as “green,” and turn out a profit. Unfortunately, corporations are not the only ones who attempt greenwashing. Any traveler, writer, blogger, or combination of the three may choose portray their experiences as more “environmentally friendly” than they actually are in order to gain readership, popularity, or just to enhance their own sense of virtue.

But, as I framed the issue in my first post, are we willing to truly turn our cameras on ourselves, to see if we’re really being as eco-friendly as we portray ourselves?

There are a lot of words we can hide behind. I don’t want to do that. But because of the confusion surrounding all of these terms, I feel that it is important for me to explain the term I’ll be using in this blog and how I define it.

I’m drawn to the term “ethical travel.” I believe that ethical travel captures the environmental and social impacts that tourism has on a location and the connection between the two. Ironically, blogger Jim O’Donnell captures this connection well in his definition of sustainable tourism. He says, “Sustainable tourism sustains or enhances the character of a place, meaning that your tourism dollars go to benefit the history, living culture, environment and socio-economic well-being of the people who live in tourism destinations.”

Something that I appreciate about this definition is that it offers a practical means of tourism that can theoretically be acted out anywhere by anyone. Based on this, I have chosen to characterize ethical travel in three ways, with the aim of being as transparent as possible:

  • Ethical travel seeks the most practical means of transportation with the least amount of pollution.
  • Ethical travel means minimizing negative impacts on the environment and people and maximizing positive ones. Ethical travelers should aim higher than “no impact”; they should aim for a positive impact whenever possible.
  • Ethical travelers should strive to act as locals in the places which they visit, treating the place as if it were their own home. This means making choices there which stimulate the local economy in ways that benefit all people who live there and cause minimal to no negative impact on the environment.

Ethical travel is a complex issue that cannot be fully explained in a short definition, but my hope is to continue to address the topics I have presented in later blog posts.




The World of Green Travel

There is no doubt that the topic of green travel has already amassed a large, ever-growing body of information. I have chosen to focus my blog on the practical things an ordinary person can do to engage in environmentally ethical travel practices, specifically in the United States. However, this topic is much broader than that, so I’ve compiled a list of some useful links for exploring some of the different facets of green travel.

If you’re interested in….

…Specific “eco-destinations” or “eco-friendly” tour companies, check out GreenSpot Travel. This blog recounts personal narratives and insights from different travel locations, giving readers valuable insights into places that may seem foreign to them. This blog is part of a larger travel website that provides links to travel destinations such as Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico, and Iceland. Also, when searching beyond this website, be on the lookout for The Rainforest Alliance logo. This organization reviews travel companies with specific criteria related to sustainable travel.

…Exploring the natural world in adventurous ways check out National Geographic’s Adventure Blog. This blog takes traveling in nature to the extremes of physical activity and wilderness immersion. National Geographic also addresses conservation and responsible tourism within the parameters of this blog. One series of posts that I am especially interested in on this blog is entitled ‘A Year in the Wilderness’ which is about Dave Freedman’s year-long expedition into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, something he is doing in support of the Save the Boundary Waters Campaign. This campaign is focused on protecting the area from proposed mining in the area.

…The lexicon of green travel, check out this article from The Frog Blog. Run by the Rainforest Alliance, an organization that works to conserve biodiversity and sustainable land use, business, and consumer practices, The Frog Blog addresses many different environmental issues, so it’s a great blog from a reputable organization that provides further reading on the broader issues in environmentalism. This article specifically does a great job of addressing the ambiguity in words and phrases like “sustainable”, “eco-travel”, and “green tourism,” and opening the conversation to commenters to add in their own thoughts and definitions of sustainable travel.

…The ethics of travel in environmental and social dimensions, Ethical Traveler is the place to visit. The motto of this website is “empowering travelers to change the world”. The site is a great place to start gaining general information about the ethics of travel and it’s a good a springboard for planning your own trip. A helpful part of this sight is the list—“The World’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations—2015”. If you want to seriously plan a trip or just explore the possibilities, this website will be more than helpful.

Lastly, a post that helped me orient myself in this broad conversation is “Top Bloggers Talk Sustainable Travel” from Wanderlusters.com. The answers provided from different travel bloggers showcase all the different issues that play into what makes travel “sustainable”, especially on a global scale.