Recreation, especially self-propelled forms of recreation, is often thought of as a benign activity on the landscape. That’s relatively true if you compare it to building a 5-star resort or a city in the middle of wilderness. But the whole truth is that recreation comes with its own impact. Just the mere presence of people in the environment has an impact and can be a form of disturbance.
This becomes a philosophical question – The essence of existing and being present means that you change things. Reality would be different if you weren’t there.
You can change things for good or bad, but you have to recognize that they change somehow. I think accepting that fact is a base layer of environmental management – people change things just by being there.
So what? By extension, everything changes everything by being there. So what if you being somewhere changes something?
From a wildlife management perspective, understanding that change is important. It’s the foundation of decision making in wilderness areas, whether the urban park down the street or the backwoods isolation you have to hike 2 days to get into.
This change can be negative or positive; it can be negligible or severe. Understanding the nature and intensity of change due to human presence is the focus of a body of scientific research looking at quantifying the impacts of recreational activity on ecosystems, wildlife, plants, and water.
Think for a moment of the impacts that you have had inadvertently while recreating outside – your boots left prints in the mud on the trail, you accidentally scared that bird away from the pine cone it was eating, the squirrels screech in the trees as you walk by alerting their squirrel friends you’re there, your bike kicked up dirt as you rode past. Most of these things are small and may seem insignificant. But enough people hiking through the alpine has created braided trails and deep rivets, impacting how water flows through the area. The bird that was eating actually ate less that day because it kept getting scared off by the many people that walked by. The squirrel spent so much time warning other squirrels it didn’t get a chance to eat. The bike path erodes more and more with each biker that skids around that corner. These cumulative impacts are what creates the impact, but the greatest intensity of impact happens at the very beginning.
The greatest impact is when you go from nothing to something – when you take pristine, untouched wilderness and put anything there – a trail or a parking lot, it doesn’t matter. After that point, everything you add increases the impact, but only incrementally. Imaging a patch of untouched forest with no human impact. Then we build a campground and a few trails. Suddenly there is something there and that something comes with people. Then a visitor centre is built on site, next to the campground. And then more trails and more picnic areas. And then maybe a boat launch. And it keeps going.
Even though all of these things create additional impact, the most intense change for the piece of forest came at the very beginning when the campground was built.
Human impact isn’t always negative, even though we often jump to that conclusion and then get defensive that “I don’t have that impact”. That’s not what this is about.
Human impact has benefited some species. Some birds, like pigeons or magpies, have benefited from human development. These species and many others have been able to take advantage of human development as a food source or even protection from predators who may be more human development wary. In the Canadian Rockies we have seen this with elk living around town to avoid predation from wolves.
Next time you go out to the woods, think about the impact you have – both good and bad. Notice how the different animals react to you being there, just walking by. I tried to find some videos on you tube of animals reacting to people, but I couldn’t find any. (Mental note, take videos this summer of animals reacting to people and post here). I found this great video from an Alaskan wilderness. Have a watch and see how many times the videographer has impacted wilderness, for good or bad. Every time an animal looks at the camera it was impacted – when an animal looks at you, it has to make a decision about what kind of threat you are, if any, and what kind of response it should have, if any. What about the footprints in the snow? Think small. Think big. Just think about it.