No Room, No Rest

In the summer of 1869, long before the inventions of Gore-Tex parkas and Kevlar kayaks, the great explorer John Wesley Powell led an expedition of 10 men in four boats down the Green River, through the red-rock canyons of what is now southeastern Utah. It was unlike any place he had ever seen before: "a strange, weird, grand region," he wrote; "the landscape everywhere is of rock . . . no vegetation; no sand; no soil." It has taken more than a century, but the American economy in its infinite adaptability has finally figured out a use for all that rock. The smooth, table-flat buttes turn out to be the perfect -- in fact, almost the only -- place on earth for in-line mountain skating.

Americans, having conquered a continent in the name of Manifest Destiny, are doing it again, this time for fun. They are creating a new landscape for the post-service economy of the future, in which the major industries will be recreation, self-actualization and tourism. But -- just like mining and logging -- that takes resources, and our reserves of wilderness are being drawn down by the millions seeking a part of it. When rafters, anglers, kayakers and jet-boaters all seek to use the same river, someone must apportion it among them. God-given wilderness will be rationed out, a campsite at a time, by a burgeoning bureaucracy. It will still be possible to see a grizzly bear in the wild; you'll just have to stand in line to do it.

A love of wilderness is said to be deeply ingrained in the American psyche, although the popularity of bus, car and airplane rides to the Grand Canyon suggests that what most people really want is more accurately described as "scenery." In principle, there's plenty of that to go around, although even the Grand Canyon may be reaching its carrying capacity. Twice as many people visited the park last year (nearly 5 million) as a decade ago, and some of them, sitting on the wrong side of packed tour buses, hardly saw anything.

But a comparable explosion of use has also occurred in the backcountry, the remote reaches traditionally inhabited only by bears, black flies and backpackers of an esthetic sensibility so refined that their wilderness experience could be irrevocably impaired by the sight of a discarded tea bag. In just the last four years the number of backcountry camping permits issued by the National Park Service has increased 50 percent, to 2.4 million. "We are in a combat management situation," says Mark Hilliard, national "watchable wildlife coordinator" for the federal Bureau of Land Management, which administers more than three times more land than all the national parks combined.

Hilliard and his counterparts in the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service confront two distinct, but related, problems: damage to land, water and wildlife, and the depressing psychological effect on visitors of viewing the wilderness as part of a mob. Environmentalists like to point out that recreation is a nonexclusive use of wilderness, as compared with development. Many people can see the same tree, but it can be cut down only once. On the other hand, the experience of looking at it begins to deteriorate when another backpacker's underwear is drying on its branches. And a tree that has been killed by Sierra Club members tramping over its roots is just as dead as one that met its fate by chainsaw. "Five years ago we were saying that tourism would help us save wilderness," says Del Smith, director of education for the National Outdoor Leadership School. "Today we're not so sure."

No place is safe from the voracity of America's leisure class. A backpacker who makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to hike in California's John Muir Wilderness has to start his trip by camping outside the ranger station all night to be in line for one of a handful of same-day permits (most are given out by mail months in advance). During the run of king salmon on Alaska's Kenai River, "if you have four feet between two fishermen, there's room for two more," says Anchorage resident Steven Nelson, who describes this as "combat fishing." The 1964 Wilderness Act made "an outstanding opportunity of solitude" an officially sanctioned federal goal. But, says Kevin Proescholdt, of an environmental group called Friends of the Boundary Waters, the most popular lakes in the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe area of northern Minnesota resemble Walden Pond less than a summer camp in the Poconos, with a steady stream of paddlers never out of sight of one another and frequent waits at portages. "It's hard to have an "outstanding opportunity of solitude' when you're racing another party for the last campsite on the lake," Proescholdt says.

It is not just overpopulation that threatens the backcountry, but a proliferation of new technologies that have turned it into one vast, gravity-powered thrill ride. Just 20 years ago rock-climbing was an esoteric hobby for daredevils, while the notion of wrecking a perfectly good bicycle on a mountain trail would have been viewed as insane. Now both are sports pursued by millions. Aluminum-hulled "jet boats" can take 40 people at a time down the rapids of the Snake River on the Idaho-Oregon border and also back up the rapids, filling Hell's Canyon with a roar you can hear for miles. This has given rise to a classic environmental conflict between those who prize the canyon precisely for its remoteness and the much larger number who want to see it in a day and get back to their motor homes in time for "Jeopardy." Each side claimed to be fighting not just for its own interests, but for the sanctity of the environment. The rafters played the trump card of environmental debate, asserting that jet boats disrupt the spawning salmon; the jet-boat guides cleverly retorted that by taking people up and down the river in a day, they eliminate the need to camp along the banks. Last month the Forest Service in its Solomon-like wisdom split the river, prohibiting jet boats along a 21-mile stretch on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The rafters, if not the salmon, can time their excursions accordingly.

More and more, the wilderness seems to lend itself to pursuits once confined to Grosse Pointe or Malibu: long-distance desert golf; surfing in the standing waves at the bottoms of river rapids; in-line skating on desert trails. Ed Cannady, a Forest Service ranger in Idaho, lives in dread that someone will figure out how to use in-line skates on the mountain trails in his region. And that's not even his biggest fear; even worse, he thinks, is the possibility of hikers equipped with Soviet Army surplus night-vision goggles, stumbling around in the dark looking for bears.

Moab, Utah, is a good place to study this process of disillusionment. "The big [environmental] issue here isn't mining or grazing anymore," according to Grand County Councilman Bill Hedden. "It's industrial-strength tourism." By the hundreds of thousands, every winter and spring, "fun hogs," as they are sometimes called in the West, descend on the surrounding countryside, gaping at the arches and towers of red sandstone, scrunching the desert beneath the fat tires of their mountain bikes. Around 300 people rode the famous Slickrock Trail a decade ago; last year there were 90,000. In the wake of the bikes come ponderous four-wheel-drive trucks loaded with the tents, coolers, portable showers and lounge chairs the riders require at sunset. The rocks themselves are rugged. But what Powell couldn't see from the river is the thin layer of soil overlying the rock, glued in place by a black crust of microorganisms that can be dislodged by a single bootprint. Canyonlands National Park superintendent Walt Dabney laments that "we truly have the ability to turn this place into nothing but rocks and dirt."

And bikers are only one segment of an industry that includes hikers, nature-study groups, "off-road" vehicles (motorcycles and 4X4s), "all-terrain" vehicles (three-wheeled buggies), horse outfitters and companies that carry disabled people into the wilderness. Their impact would be substantial even if they all behaved responsibly, which of course they don't. In April 1993, when college and high-school breaks coincided with the annual Jeep Safari, thousands of nature lovers descended on the Moab region. In their enthusiasm for the wilderness, they got drunk, started fights and began uprooting trees for their campfires, resulting in a riot that took every law-enforcement officer in Grand County to quell.

The BLM's response was to slap emergency closures on some of the affected trails and campsites. Some people approved, but to others, especially those who sold trips to the area, if you stacked that decision up against communism you could hardly tell them apart. A proposed backcountry management plan for nearby Canyon-lands National Park unleashed criticism from every imaginable quarter, including Mormons who objected that a limit of six on backcountry camping parties placed an undue hardship on families of eight or 10. The uproar reached Washington, where Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Wildlife and Parks George Frampton said that the "proposed plan in Canyonlands is likely to be reproposed."

This is a model for a new kind of environmental clash, in which the issue is one kind of recreation against another -- a battle, says Joe Higgins of Wilderness Watch, of "the good guys versus the good guys." Higgins's group has been caught up in a complex tangle over restricting use of the Alpine Lakes area. This is a stark, cloud-shrouded wilderness of granite peaks and wildflower-strewn meadows that has the misfortune to lie only about an hour's drive from Seattle. The Forest Service recently proposed rules that would require permits for overnight use in parts of Alpine Lakes and prohibit unleashed dogs on two trails. In some quarters this was portrayed as an act of the most blatant tyranny and a likely first step toward confiscating people's boots to keep them from stepping on plants in the forest. "Dogs come here for the same reason I do, to run around and be free," said Lynn O'Malley, an ultramarathoner who trains in the area with daylong hikes.

But those who oppose restrictions are probably fighting a losing battle. Among environmentalists, the only debate is whether to call it "rationing" or something else. "Rationing is in the cards," says Wilderness Society president Jon Roush. "It's just inevitable." "Rationing is too tough a word to describe what we're doing," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt told Newsweek, "but reservations and allocating backcountry permits -- those are indispensable tools." The dissents come mostly from people with a business interest to protect, like Derrick Crandall of the American Recreation Council, who points out that the peak in backcountry use may have already passed. "Don't forget," he says, "the number-one recreational activities for Generation X are shopping malls and skateboards."

But population grows exponentially while wilderness contracts, as Malthus might have observed had he lived in an era characterized by the struggle for recreational opportunities rather than food. Rationing is happening already, on an ad hoc, patchwork basis around the country. One of the best advertisements for the continued existence of nature is the chance to see a grizzly bear in the wild. There are places in Alaska where the bears' appetite for salmon overcomes, for a few weeks a year, their fear of people, allowing anyone to stand within yards of the giant creatures as they pursue behaviors once known only to lifelong readers of National Geographic.

Want to go? Of course you do. But you can't just pack your camera and get on an airplane; you need a permit. You can apply for a day-use permit for the Pack Creek area on Admiralty Island, near Juneau, and hope you get your letter in early enough to qualify for one of the 12 daily passes awarded for the six-week season. Or you can enter the lottery for an overnight-use permit at McNeil River, 250 miles from Anchorage; last year more than 2,000 people applied. Or you can sign up with a private concessionaire on Kodiak Island -- at some $1,400 for a four-day trip.

Increasingly, land will be allocated like this, and we need guidance. We will have to invent a new science of psycho-ecology, the phenomenology of wilderness experience. Noel Poe, superintendent of Arches National Park, is already trying to come up with a quantifiable measure of solitude. Visitors to Delicate Arch, a spectacular sandstone formation, were shown pictures of the site in various states of crowding, from deserted up to a mob of 100; from their reactions, Poe was able to conclude that the point at which people turned to their spouses and said, We should have stayed in the motel and gone to the pool was reached at approximately 30 visitors. Perhaps we need data points like this for every significant natural site in the United States, a national inventory of our trails, streams, rivers and peaks so they can be allocated with maximum efficiency among backpackers, mountain bikers, heli-mountain bikers, free climbers, sport climbers, rafters, canoers, kayakers, fly fishermen, bait fishermen, black-powder hunters, cartridge hunters, bowhunters, mushroom pickers, photographers and nature writers. We give something up, certainly, in scheduling wilderness like the tees at Augusta National: the freedom to set off into the country at a whim, to explore without worrying about the time limit on our permit. But the alternative is . . . well, a country that can put a man on the moon is probably capable of building a mountain skateboard.