Climate change is spoiling the outdoors — and that’s the least of our troubles
I’ve had ample opportunity to observe climate change in the outdoors. In 2016, my husband and I backpacked our first section of the Pacific Crest Trail, from Kennedy Meadows to Kearsarge Pass in California. Before leaving, we’d kept an eye on the Chimney Fire, which burned 46,000 acres of forest and closed sections of the trail. We were lucky; the fire stopped short of our departure point.
That trip was the best experience of our lives. We intended to do another section each year, but have only been back once, in 2018. The interim years, another effect of climate change kept us out: the combination of deep winter snowpack followed by high spring temperatures that puts waterways on steroids. In 2017, two PCT hikers were swept to their deaths trying to cross rivers in the section we had planned to hike.
Drought is also a backpacking buzzkill. Water weighs a lot, so you want to be able to carry as little as possible and hike from water source to water source for refills. On the Ruby Crest Trail, the Northern Nevada route we backpacked last year, there’s a 14-mile dry stretch. You either have to do it in one shot or carry enough water for all day and overnight. Lots of Western trails have sporadic water sources. As climate change dries them up, more of these trails will become inaccessible. And to come full circle, we almost had to cancel that Ruby Crest hike because of another wildfire, which burned nearly 17,000 acres and temporarily closed the trailhead access road.
Like many, I see the outdoors as my playground, religion, and therapy, so you could say climate change is burning, flooding, and desiccating my church. Perhaps this is a petty complaint in the context of the 2018 California wildfires that killed dozens of people and displaced hundreds of families, not to mention the historically destructive Australian wildfires, which have killed 27 people and a billion animals (so far). But the effects that outdoor recreationists like me are seeing on our beloved wilderness areas could serve as a warning that we need to make serious changes before we end up like Australia.
Right now, the signs I see are comparatively small, but they’re ominous. Since 2004, when I started road biking, my cycling season has gotten shorter by a few weeks. I don’t ride during 100-plus degree stretches. In Las Vegas, the historical average number of those days is 71 per year, but in 2017 there were 86. The Union of Concerned Scientists says that, on the current trajectory, we’ll see 96 three-digit days a year by 2100. Of course, cyclists living in that future hell can always head to the mountains, where it’s cooler … provided there are no wildfires, floods, or drought. And this is just one activity, cycling, in one person’s experience. Now extrapolate that out to all the other people who do all the other activities there are to do outdoors, and the countless ways that climate change can interfere, from longer allergy seasons to extreme weather events.
Outdoor recreation is big business. Last year, the Outdoor Industries Association estimated that it accounts for 87,000 jobs creating $4 billion in wages and salaries, and generates $12.6 billion in consumer spending and $1 billion in state and local tax revenue for Nevada. So, even if you’re not worried about killing people and animals, maybe you care about losing a chunk of this change.
Outdoor recreation companies certainly do. Powdr Corp, owner of Lee Canyon ski area, is following the trend of converting snow sports resorts to year-round recreation destinations — a reaction to the decreasing length and quality of ski seasons worldwide. The company has proposed a retooling of Lee Canyon to include mountain bike trails, a hillside coaster, and a zipline, all warm-weather activities, in addition to more ski lifts, runs, and snowmaking capacity.
The environmental impact report on this project predicts that it will likely be detrimental to the endangered Mount Charleston Blue Butterflies, which breed in the area. The company, known as a good steward of the environment, says it will keep an eye on any damage to the butterfly’s habitat as construction proceeds, and a local scientist tells me that the butterfly should continue to thrive in other, higher-elevation areas. But if the project does go forward as planned, the implicit message will be that this patch of butterfly habitat is an acceptable price to pay to save the resort.
In the past, public relations agents have chastised me for writing about the “bathtub ring” at Lake Mead, citing the impact that such a negative image has on the lake’s boat rental companies and tour guides. More recently, I’ve gotten pitches to write about how Nevada is bucking declining national trends by seeing growth in outdoor recreation.
I appreciate what the abundance of nearby public lands and nice weather do for the economy. I’m grateful for the outfitters large and small who have facilitated my passions. But for their sake, and my stepkids’ and their kids’, I’m less inclined to talk about all their great products and services than the changes they — and I, and everyone else — must make to preserve the spaces that support their business, my leisure, and countless plants and animals.
Because it’s a bummer to have to cancel your hike due to a wildfire or flood, but it’s a tragedy to watch your world burn knowing you could have done something about it sooner.