To some on the fringes, the only good planet is one without people. To some pseudo-environmentalists, a good planet is one where theirs is the only SUV. To millions more, nature is a way to escape the rigors of city life and enjoy the outdoors without being intrusive.
Ecotourism is big business these days. Convincing society that nature's beauty should be preserved and enjoyed has convinced more people than ever they should actually enjoy it.
But an examination of Californian forests says that hiking, bird-watching and other low-impact activities are linked to a sharp drop in carnivores like bobcats and coyotes. In other words, if you really care about Mother Earth you should leave nature to conservationists who get paid to monitor wildlife and instead walk around the local mall.
If you ask farmers, fewer coyotes and bobcats are a good thing but biodiversity means including animals that are difficult to like. Promoting eco-tourism is also a double-edged sword, it turns out. Yes, wilderness is preserved but people paying for preservation might actually wish to see it.
Not surprisingly, natural carnivores vacate an area where there are lots of people, though not all of them. A few months ago rabid bobcats attacked two hikers. In most cases, attacks occur because stupid these weekend environmentalists feed the animals, not because they are rabid, but if even low impact activities have an effect then those attacks will go up, leading to rationalizations that the attacking critters are the sole problem.
Writing in Conservation Letters, Sarah Reed and Adina Merelender, both of the Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management at the University of California, Berkeley (Reed also works for The Wilderness Society Center for Landscape Analysis in San Francisco), say that even nonconsumptive recreation may not be compatible with biodiversity protection.
They used DNA analysis and surveys of 28 parks and preserves in northern California and found that even mild use caused a five-fold drop in presence of carnivores like the bobcats and coyotes mentioned above.
These were not four-wheelers and logging trucks doing the damage but hikers and bird-watchers so this leads to a real dilemma. The recent boosts in eco-tourism have happened because environmental groups got smarter marketing and found that 'Doomsday' scenarios appealed only to their hardcore base while 'make sure your kids can enjoy the same natural beauty you did as a child' appealled to a broader segment of society. That's good for everyone
The downside is that people will then want to visit nature with their kids.
Is there an easy solution? No, this data was just a letter in an online magazine with primarily anecdotal evidence and not a robust science study so it's impossible to make policy decisions but it brings up interesting talking points.
If the best environment is an environment where there are no people, nature is going to lose.
Sarah E. Reed & Adina M. Merenlender, 'Quiet, Nonconsumptive Recreation Reduces Protected Area Effectiveness', Conservation Letters, 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2008.00019.x