Manifold Destiny

Essay by Allen Best

Outdoor recreation – June 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

FIRST CAME the backcountry ski huts. I loved them, but they took “back” from the backcountry. Summer brought different toys, similar dynamics. Gleaming four-wheel beasts of burden were just the start. New toys, the all-terrain vehicles and mountain bikes, broke down distances and, by extension, forests.

It wasn’t the people. Snowmobilers and off-roaders are friendly enough. And I had places to flee once my favorite areas became, by my definition, crowded.

Even so, I was troubled as recreational use of my playground — the White River National Forest — doubled in just 15 years. My consternation crystallized around a concept I call Manifold Destiny, the belief that all the forest should be as accessible as a drive-by window at a fast-food restaurant. It’s the Grand Cherokee at cliff’s edge, the snowmobile screaming across powder flats, the all-terrain vehicle, something foreign to forests 20 years ago, thrashing a new road through the forest to retrieve the fallen elk.

In small doses, I have no problems with any of this. The doses, however, are no longer small. Snowmobile registrations increased 70 percent in Colorado just during the ’90s. The little ski and ranching towns have transmogrified into sprawling New West cities that have tripled and will probably double again. Meanwhile, nearby Denver’s metropolitan population is expected to hit three million within 20 years.

Confronted with all this, the apostles of Manifold Destiny fall back on lame arguments about creaky knees, about everybody’s grandfather having the right to personally inspect every acre of forest land while gripping a steering wheel, about the forest being out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But there’s even a more disturbing aspect of Manifold Destiny, and it has to do with money. On the White River National Forest — the nation’s 11th largest and 5th busiest — those with the most money gain the most access.

Consider cross-country skiing. I got into the wooden skis and flimsy boots for $150, but I got farther into the backcountry after investing $630 in climbing skins, metal-edged skis, and high leather boots. To get beyond the snowmobiles, though, I would need a snowmobile ($6,000 to $10,000), a truck (used, $10,000), and a place to store them. Because I lived in a condo in a ski town, that would mean buying a house, which even a couple of decades ago would have cost me $50,000 to $100,000 more. Today I would need at least a half a million.

HOW ABOUT DOWNHILL SKIING? The ski areas always want more terrain. It’s relatively cheap marketing. Once again, money rules. The median income for White River skiers is $80,000. Still, the market has been flat, so the reps have been off to foreign lands to drum up more business to justify the ski resorts’ demands for more of our national forests. Isn’t this the tourism equivalent to selling our old-growth logs to Japan?

To its credit, the Forest Service has proposed a revision of its management plan for the White River, taking the stance that we don’t have the right to be everywhere, anytime, by whatever means we choose. That idea is as controversial as the notion of limiting livestock grazing and timber harvests was a century ago.

When it comes right down to it, though, the Forest Service proposals for more limited access are not radical. With the exception of snowmobiling in some areas, nobody’s current use would get substantially abridged. When pressed for specifics, outraged critics of the plan usually drift into talk about it setting a bad precedent for public lands in the West.

Somehow, the Republican politicians who have lambasted this plan manage to argue that a $50 pair of hiking shoes is more elitist than a $5,000 internal-combustion toy. But even if the Forest Service manages to close down 22 miles of road per year, as it proposes, that would leave enough motorized trails to extend from Washington D.C. to Denver, and enough roads for full-sized vehicles to extend from Denver to Seattle.

There it is, from sea to shining sea, and still it’s not enough for Manifold Destiny.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He lives outside Denver.