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Don’t try to get close to wildlife, especially in winter when they’re already stressed by cold temperatures and food scarcity.

Sarah Reed, one of the authors of “Don’t hike so close to me,” teaches in Colorado State University’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology and is executive director of the Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation, which supports the work of individuals and organizations that drive positive environmental change. We asked her to talk about issues affecting Colorado’s great outdoors, especially those situations where human uses of the land clash with the survival needs of the natural world... 

Indy: Considering the work you do, what would you like to say to people who go into nature for recreation? What changes might you suggest they make in their outdoor behavior?

Sarah Reed: One of the most interesting aspects of researching the effects of outdoor recreation on wildlife has been the resistance I’ve encountered from other scientists, conservationists and recreationists. Comments in response to public presentations and articles have ranged from angry to disappointed, from skeptical to dismissive, to openly unconcerned about the unintended effects of outdoor recreation. What these responses show me is that, like most natural resource management challenges, the solutions will be determined by human values and human choices.

Many of us live in Colorado and invest in our communities because we value opportunities to spend time outdoors, enjoy recreation activities and view wildlife. Effectively balancing the competing needs of outdoor recreation and wildlife conservation will require us to examine our own values and ask ourselves what we are willing to compromise in order to be part of the solution.

For individuals who enjoy recreating outdoors, practical recommendations supported by scientific studies include:

• stay on existing trails;

• respect seasonal closures;

• don’t approach wildlife;

• minimize noise; and

• reduce speeds of motorized vehicles.

At the community level, voters can support their local open space agencies to engage in planning processes that balance recreation and conservation objectives across networks of protected lands. In all cases, the success of recreation planning and management will only be as good as its enforcement, and open space agencies need sufficient capacity and resources to effectively manage outdoor recreation. 

Should we be trying to get more people outside in nature?

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Sarah Reed

Researchers and policymakers have argued that people will not care about protected lands, or the wildlife species and ecosystems that depend on them, if they do not visit them. As a result, we see an assumed relationship between outdoor recreation and a conservation ethic reflected in programs designed to expand recreation access, increase participation rates, and make those opportunities available to a greater diversity of visitors.

These are important goals for the health, equity and economies of human communities, but studies have found that participation in outdoor recreation is a weak predictor of environmental concern. Instead, factors such as the type of activity the visitor participates in, and the visitor’s motivations for participating in that activity, are more influential. In addition, the relationship is likely to be stronger if the environmental concern relates to the resources needed for pursuing a preferred activity; in other words, hikers are more likely to support the protection of lands that provide good hiking opportunities.

Greenfield construction along Colorado’s Front Range continues at lightning pace. Talk about the impacts on wildlife populations as a result of increased human use of formerly wild lands.

The most visible and direct effects of expanding development and associated infrastructure on wildlife are habitat loss and fragmentation, as undeveloped lands with natural vegetation are carved into smaller and more isolated parcels. We tend to think less about how humans use the landscape — from maintaining lawns or feeding wildlife on their own properties, to emitting noise and light from driving vehicles along roads, to recreating in undeveloped protected lands — and how those activities influence the persistence of the wildlife populations that remain.

For the past 20 years, I have worked at the intersection of wildlife conservation and land-use planning. In developing communities, conservation goals and human needs are often presented as mutually exclusive or conflicting (e.g., open space conservation versus affordable housing construction), especially when considering the fate of a single property. Here in Fort Collins, the current discussion about what CSU should do with the former Hughes Stadium land is a perfect example.

I believe that we have the planning tools and development incentives we need to move beyond these perceived dichotomies and create networks of housing and open space that both sustain nature and engage people; we just need to work together at larger spatial scales and over longer time horizons to plan for the mutual benefits of biodiversity and human communities.