Conservation and environmental awareness

  • Planet survival
  • Issues of conflict
  • Environmental awareness

Many outdoors enthusiasts have intense interest in, and affection for, the wild and natural places into which they venture. Their experience of an area is greatly enriched by knowledge of the local plants, animals, geology or history. Many others are keen to acquire such knowledge but are not sure where or how to obtain it. Many excellent field guides are now available, including a number specifically for popular areas. These books are generally in great demand when a group travels through an area with strong natural history interest, such as richly varied heathland. Leaders who can identify particular plants or animals and stimulate group members to observe unusual specimens are highly valued by their group or organisation. From a conservation viewpoint, people who develop a greater interest in and understanding of the natural environment almost always become stronger advocates for its preservation.

Planet survival

The viability of life on this planet is critical to all of us. Our very existence is dependent on the survival of the natural ecosystems which supply our air, water, food and shelter. Degradation of these systems results in the lowering of air and water quality, soil fertility, and plant and animal productivity. Most of us can do very little to influence the broad sweep of the global environment but we can influence events and actions at the local level. Each one of us has some impact on the areas in which we live and the places which we visit. It is highly desirable that this impact be positive rather than negative. Outdoor leaders are in an excellent position to influence the members of their groups to move towards the positive end of the impact scale. Chapter 24 details specific actions to minimise damage to the areas which we visit. A skilled leader can go further than this by initiating or encouraging positive actions such as picking up litter or repairing ugly campfire scars.

Natural ecosystems function better and are more stable in large, unfragmented areas. One large area can support bigger populations of plants and animals and a greater diversity of species than the same area divided into small islands. Large populations are at less risk of inbreeding and are better able to accommodate changes in their habitat. Large areas can securely protect the habitats at their core and resist external influences better than small areas with convoluted borders. In large reserves wildlife is more readily able to migrate away from areas damaged by wildfire or degraded by drought, flood or infestation. Substantial areas with high diversity of species have been shown to have considerable resilience. They often have the capacity to recover from disasters which could destroy small populations or monocultures. Healthy natural ecosystems provide invaluable insurance against major environmental degradation or even extinction.

Natural ecosystems are also a reservoir of potentially valuable genetic material which could be used for the production of new products, foods and medicines. Future industries may depend upon the continued existence of these natural genetic laboratories. Natural ecosystems are also havens for emotional and physical renewal in an increasingly urbanised society.

Issues of conflict

In all highly industrialised societies there is continuing political conflict over the preservation of large, intact, diverse ecosystems within strong reserves such as national parks. Often the only point of some agreement is on the value of natural reserves as drawcards for the tourist industry. Miners, timber harvesters and other interest groups often portray such large reserves as wasteful or unmanageable. Frequently they argue that a small excision from these reserves will make no difference.

Normally, outdoor recreationists side with scientists and other conservationists in seeking to preserve an area for its beauty, biodiversity or recreational value, but there is not always agreement between all groups of outdoor recreational users. Finding a balance between the demands of the various groups is a constant problem for legislators and land managers. Below is a list of several of the contentious land use issues and a few of the arguments used by the various conflicting groups. The list is not exhaustive, nor are the points intended to resolve any particular issue. It is presented to encourage discussion, covering the main issues broadly.

Mining

  • is a resource needed for economic development and survival
  • causes visual degradation and habitat destruction
  • waste can contaminate the surrounding area
  • reduces flora and fauna diversity.

Forestry

  • is a resource needed for economic development and survival
  • can lead to removal of old growth forests, inappropriate fuel reduction burning and the use of monocultural plantations which results in reduced diversity and increased pollution of water resources
  • woodchips are a wasteful use of old growth and rainforest timber
  • spreads pathogens such as the cinnamon fungus (Phytophthora cinnamomi) which attacks native plants, and Chalaris australis, which attacks certain rainforest plants
  • road making is an intrusion and reduces bushland.

Water catchments

  • are resources needed for economic development and survival
  • inundation of large areas and the disruption of stream flow decreases diversity
  • access and powerlines are an eyesore and fragment natural communities.

Grazing

  • is a part of the Australian heritage
  • animals trample vegetation, particularly vulnerable species such as bog plants, and introduce weeds and pests
  • cattle manure pollutes water sources
  • reduces and changes flora and fauna diversity.

Tourism, resorts and developments

  • provide a means by which less able people can experience a natural ecosystem
  • ski resorts and private lodges are a legitimate use of a natural resource
  • ski resorts are an eyesore and replace large areas of vegetation with buildings
  • roads are intrusive and cause fragmentation of habitats
  • motorised vehicles (such as over-snow, helicopters, four-wheel drives and jet-skis) interfere with the peace of others
  • picnic grounds and parking areas are sites of degradation and rubbish
  • developments increase the likelihood of spreading pathogens and reduce or change biodiversity
  • there is increasing commercial pressure for infrastructure in national parks.

Huts

  • cause a concentration of use and are sites of weed colonisation
  • attract unskilled, ill-equipped people into fragile or potentially dangerous areas
  • save lives by providing shelter in bad weather
  • provide toilets and minimise the area over which faecal matter is spread.

Hardened trails and track markers

  • detract from the ‘wilderness experience’
  • can restrict the damage to fragile habitats
  • can fragment a habitat
  • are sites of weed, pest and pathogen dispersal
  • are a guide and prevent less-experienced parties becoming lost
  • channel activity away from sensitive areas and critical habitats.

Recreational usage

  • horse riding results in erosion and piles of manure
  • trail-bike riding causes noise and erosion
  • four-wheel drive vehicles damage trails and some of their occupants leave rubbish behind
  • the firearms of hunters are a hazard to other users and their dogs a disturbance
  • canoeists and rafters disturb the banks of rivers and lakes
  • bushwalking and cross-country skiing damages the ecosystem that the visitor comes to enjoy.

Permits

  • limit the exposure of wild places to excessive and inappropriate use
  • are an unnecessary cost and limitation on people’s freedom.

Unfortunately, many conflicts have been decided by votes and emotive argument, rather than best practice. Even among walkers, ski tourers, rock climbers and canoeists, many are poorly informed or naively disinterested. It is everyone’s responsibility to become educated about how the environment works and how we affect it. Instead of self interest, our decisions should be based on the following principles:

  • Are sufficient, diverse environments, ecosystems and species preserved to maintain life on this planet?
  • Is it the best utilisation of the limited resource?
  • Do the benefits outweigh the costs to the natural resource and its users?

Environmental awareness

There are many organisations championing a particular course or interest in the environment. If you feel strongly about a particular issue, ask the appropriate campaigning groups or individuals about their policies and methods. Decide on your own best policies and support the people with whom you agree.

The area of wilderness and natural bushland around the globe is extremely limited and continues to shrink. Outdoor recreationists are major users of these areas and have a vested interest in conserving them in their natural state. It is always the other user that is the problem! If recreationists actively minimise the impact they have on the environment, their cries against other users should have more power. However, the protection of natural landscapes is not limited to the exclusion of other users and low-impact camping strategies. The demand for cheap timber, minerals, water and beef is what drives the incursion of industry into natural areas. If outdoor enthusiasts are to protect areas of great intrinsic beauty they will need to adopt a minimal impact life, not just a camping style!

Outdoor recreationists are one of the more vulnerable users of the environment, as their activities prefer the near exclusive use of large tracts of land. They are therefore more likely to sense the vanishing of the great resource of natural landscapes. As outdoor activity leaders you have a unique opportunity, indeed responsibility, to stimulate thought and discussion on how humans can best utilise and maintain a sustainable planet.