The Approach

This summer, I wanted to tackle a question that has been rattling around my mind as soon as I step outdoors. Every walk, hike, climb, or adventure I take in the outdoors leads to the question of: how does one ethically recreate in the outdoors? I have been taught under the guise of Leave No Trace (LNT) principles–which boils down to ‘leave what you find’ and ‘don’t make a mess’. But I always wondered; what are the government’s policies on ‘leaving no trace’? What about trails that are made for people’s enjoyment? How can we, as an entire country, recreate in the outdoors without leaving a trace? From switch backs to crowded trailhead parking lots to metal bolts in sheer rock allowing for climbers, we are definitely leaving a trace. So, who gets to make those decisions about what trace is allowed to be left? And how do they think about outdoor recreation and the duty to the environment? How do people that use the land think about their recreation habits? What about those that teach about the land, or profit off land-users? All of these questions, to me, help explore what it means to ethically recreate in the outdoors. Ethical outdoor recreation is something I think about often, and I am excited about the opportunity to explore how one can ethically recreate outdoors further.

Throughout this summer, I hope to find the underlying ethics that guide three distinct groups; the US government, private organizations, and individual outdoor enthusiasts. Trying to understand how each of these three branches think about outdoor recreation will help me better understand the world and explore diverse views on outdoor ethics.

To begin this quest, I first need a solid understanding of the theoretical basis for environmental ethics. This will help me understand the different ethical outlooks one can have. Theory guides decisions, and through theory I can start to pick out differences in ethical approaches between the three lenses. This theory exploration has been taking up a majority of my time for the early days of this project. Questions posed by theorists can vary, and one that I am particularly interested in is the question of whether people have environmental obligations for the sake of human living in the world today, for humans living in the future, or for the sake of entities within the environment itself, irrespective of any human benefits. Later in my research, I hope to discover how the three different branches answer questions like that one.

I think there will be some considerable challenges to this project. My plan is to investigate some answers to the questions posed above by doing research on history and current standings of government regulations. This could be challenging because often the government does not outright state their opinion on ethics. Also, there are competing bodies of government that have their own background and ethical framework and make opposing decisions on outdoor recreation. With private organizations, there is a challenge that the companies work for profit and are unwilling to publish work that shows their ethical framework. These companies have an ulterior motive–their bottom line. It is possible that companies–like Leave No Trace, REI, or even Outward Bound–do what they do, and profess what they profess, only to help their bottom line, which will be interesting for investigation but poses the risk of not understanding true company ethics. Finally, with individual outdoor enthusiasts, I am weary that the interview style of investigation will lead to substantial results. People I interview very well could not think about outdoor ethics or have formulated opinions on their ethical framework. While I still believe that this will be beneficial for my project, it could pose some problems to concrete findings.

While these obstacles could pose problems for my research, I am confident in my ability to find a way to do meaningful research and deeply consider how one ethically recreates in the outdoors. I am excited about diving into this research and figuring out some of these problems.