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.