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  • Writer's pictureRoy Thomas

Doing Our Part

Preserving our trails and outdoors treasures will require education and funding

There are few places on earth where on may simply walk in the wild. Much of Alaska’s vast open spaces still offer such opportunities. Here in my wonderful home state you will find many developed trails, each experiencing an ever increasing demand from the growing influx of walkers, hikers, campers, and hunters.

Around the world our developed trails and routes face increasing pressure from a growing interest in walking, wild camping, and adventuring. Additionally social media spotlighting, drives individuals to duplicate a magnificent wild photo, or try to replicate the experience of a social media influencer that they follow. All of this pressure puts a strain on the wild, on the developed resources and creates friction among users who must share a finite resource with a growing group of users. When wild routes cross highway access even more pressure is added as day hikers clog toilets, let pets run amok and at times fail to recognize the value of what they tread upon. The numbers are great, the West Highland way sees 80,000 walkers each year with 30,000 walking the whole distance, the Camino de Santiago is now seeing over 300,000 walkers a year. Having walked The Camino de Santiago twice, the Great Glen Way, Hadrian Wall Path, and the Chilkoot Trail I have seen firsthand the damage and pressure that masses of people can place on a trail or wild place. Even with those experiences I believe that the problem does not lie in the number of users but rather in their ignorance. Furthermore I believe that with some education we can keep these paths: maintained, accessible, and enjoyable for current users and for generations to follow the call to walk on foot.

Recently the Telegraph reported that the Highlands would be introducing a tourism tax on campers.

The demands on the infrastructure, including toilets and trails have created an underfunded demand on the public resources. Litter, public toilet maintenance, and parking lot access are all creating a drain on limited public resources. As an individual planning on hiking the West Highland Way in the summer of 2020; I actually welcome this tax. As a user of the trail I have no issue with helping pay my part for maintain the trail, access, and sanitation of this iconic treasure. While a tax is useful for funding such needs, a tax does not address a more pressing need, education. Far too many travelers are lacking etiquette knowledge for respectfully hiking with a leave no trace mentality, or even how to behave in an albergue in Spain or a hostel in Scotland. Two of my travel experiences in the past ten years lead me to offer a suggestion as to how to improve, protect and fund our paths while at the same time providing a better experience for users.

Humauna Bay in Hawaii is the remnant of a volcanic crater not adorned with marvelous coral reefs and delightful sandy beaches.

Each year this site attracts over 1,000,000 visitors, yet the coral and sea creators are still to be found in abundance. The $7.50 fee certainly does not slow the number of visitors each day. How does this limited resource support such vast numbers of visitors? Before entering the park each individual must watch an orientation video. This video speaks to the necessary behaviors to protect the coral and the wild life. It also addresses such safety issues as rip tide and large surf. In eight minutes guests are brought up to speed on their responsibilities during their visit.

Chilkoot Trail National Historical Park provides another great example of quality visitor management. This park includes a trail that crosses an international border and takes you among artifacts left over 100 years ago by Klondike stampeeders. Those artifacts remain remarkably untouched and in place.

Additionally the trail is impeccably clean and in places provides a wilderness experience that is hard to differentiate from the experience of those traversing the pass years ago. The Chilkoot Trail is far more restrictive in its permitting and its allowance of trail users with only 50 hikers allowed to enter the trail each day. The permit, with funds going to both Parks Canada and the National Park Service, is also expensive. The permit cost about $75 per person and does not include the expense of the one way train ride out. Currently the train or chartered float plane are the primary means of leaving the trail once completed. Certainly the limiting of users on the trail limits the impact on the trail, but this experience requires and orientations including a bear safety video before you are even issued your permit to walk.

I believe the experiences at both Hanauna Bay and on the Chilkoot Trail provide a model for managing our trails and wilderness experiences suffering under the greatest demand. The Camino de Santiago already requires a credential to stay at the pilgrim hostels along the way and even routes like the Hadrian Wall Path offers a walking passport to stamp your stops along the journey.

My recommendation is to expand such credentials to our most strained paths around the world. Access to a credential or trail passport could be provided through online resources or at common starting points for these trails. Simply login, pay a modest fee, watch orientation video(s) concerning etiquette and safety and receive your credential by mail before your journey, or at the beginning of the trail at participating albergues, hostels or other facilities.

One only has to step a few feet off the Camino de Santiago into the woods to see the impact that a lack of trail etiquette and accessible resources can have on well traveled paths. A reasonable fee and a required orientation can address these challenges and keep these well-loved experiences available for generations to come.

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