Ever Shrinking Wilderness

OK, one of GG’s favorite sports is spotting the New York Times engaging in “wow, stuff in the west is different” writing that often contains generalities or mislocations that reflect the general ignorance of the paper’s staff with the west (like here and here). A new article is sort of along these lines; it recounts the pressures on search-and-rescue teams in the west due to naive, ignorant, or bullheaded urbanites & suburbanites escaping all the rules of pandemic America for the freedom of the wilderness. Except, unsurprisingly, that many of them have no idea what going into the wilderness entails.

So what makes the story worthy of commentary? Well, first off, this is not remotely a new trend. From the moment cell service extended into any wild area, people have been calling for help, many of them demonstrating their ignorance. GG has brought this up a few times (like here and here and here). Search and rescue teams in Boulder are pretty much out at least once a week and often daily doing everything from getting an untrained climber down off a local flatiron to searching for somebody who wandered into the wilderness on a whim to rescuing fallen and injured climbers. Even more remote areas like around Silverton in southwest Colorado get to deal with the occasional dimwit driving their SUV across the tundra to the edge of a cliff where they get stuck (for some reason, these are usually Texans). This is common enough that GG has run into search and rescue folks while out recreating on his own. Rocky Mountain National Park, being very popular with people from flat places, is practically a training ground for search and rescue; the level of ignorance of some visitors can be breathtaking (for instance, the family that decided to cut down a tree in their illegal campsite by a very popular lake IN A NATIONAL PARK). Is it worse in the pandemic? Well, gosh, yes. Maybe this all looks new to folks in Pinedale, Wyoming, where the focus of the Times’s story is, but it surely isn’t to folks in the Sierra Nevada or most of Colorado.

So this story follows in the footsteps of so many in making something that has been going on for a long time into something dramatically changed; how much of that exaggeration is ignorance of the reporter or a calculated decision to reflect the likely views of the readers is unclear. The other thing it does is make it sound like the Wind Rivers are Xanadu or some lost continent only now being discovered–which may well be true for New York Times reporters and readers, but isn’t for millions of folks in the West. From reading this, you’d think this was the most isolated spot possible and no it is gone–GONE, I tell you! Um, well, compared to nearby Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park (both places where the search and rescue teams keep busy), yeah, the Winds are less hammered, but they are far from the last place some quotes would have you believe (GG can think of a half dozen places far less known, far less visited than the Winds, and he bets most westerners can do the same).

Now to be fair, the article does point out a big problem: search and rescue is a volunteer job. But then, too, in much of the rural west, so is firefighting (wonder if the Times will discover that soon); some of GG’s colleagues are volunteer firefighters. And if it was just locals being rescued–folks who knew their way around and had the bad luck to break a bone, get struck by lightning or get stuck behind a suddenly swollen stream–volunteers would be enough. But the influx of the woefully unprepared–and this story has a nice selection to choose from–has already stressed more popular parts of the West. Will some places decide to dedicate some of their motel taxes to rescuing visitors? It does seem like this might be a good idea. But is this purely a new thing brought on by COVD-19? Well, no.

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