It’s easy to assume that people who mountain bike, rock climb, and hike also value environmental protection, but is that true? And do outdoorsy folks do anything to help protect the mountains and rivers where they play? For High Country News, Ethan Linck examines the complex, often flimsy relationship between outdoor recreation and conservation efforts. Linck speaks from experience: he’s a runner, a skier, a climber. He recognizes many failures in the outdoor recreation industry and his own community and the challenges balancing the enjoyment of nature with efforts to protect it. Fortunately, he also sees some promise.

By citing its indirect contributions to federal agencies with widely varied missions and management agendas, the Outdoor Industry Association inadvertently raises a thorny question. That is: What are we conserving in the first place? Should we fight for public lands because they provide us with recreation opportunities, or because they support biodiversity? Should we only protect those plants and animals that directly benefit us or that we find beautiful — or should we fight for the entire community of life? The field of conservation biology tells us that long-term ecological stability requires the latter. But stoke fundamentally centers on the self and the quality of human experience, and thus has no intrinsic stake in biodiversity or ecosystem stability. More than anything else about recreation culture and its relationship to conservation, this troubles me.

For even if outdoor industry groups manage to engage in some political battles, or kick some money toward environmental protection, recreationist-driven conservation has historically failed to align with the principles of conservation biology. That’s largely because of the emphasis on awe-inspiring scenery at the expense of biodiversity-rich lowlands, and wildlife management that favors prey species at the expense of ecosystems. This is especially true in the mountainous West.

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