Over the past few months, I’ve been having some conversations with various people about an Adirondack Park Agency regulation that caught me by surprise when I heard about it. What is it? It’s that all new wilderness camping sites must be at least 150 feet from a water front or trail, and any existing site must be relocated to that distance if it requires reconstruction. Considering that my job does mean keeping up with regulations, it was the first I’d heard of it, hence part of my shock. The other part was being incredulous that it was thought to be a good idea.
The old rule was that you were supposed to camp that distance, except on designated sites. The designated sites were often next to the trail or right off the water, and were usually places that were being used in the first place. Visible, easily accessible, and monitored. The new rule? Good luck finding it. As one person who was telling me about it said, the state recently built a new lean-to that distance from the water on a heavily travelled canoe trail. So far, no one has used it, because no one knows it’s there.
As I’ve thought about it over the course other conversations, what I’ve come to the conclusion is that this is the result of a generational divide in those who are working in the environmental field. It’s related to the population shift in this country as well.
Most of the people I know in the field in my generation all entered college back in the late 60’s to early 80’s. It was a heady time, when most of the environmental laws and protections were coming into force. Many of us who went into it, particularly in this area, were people who had grown up “running the woods.” We’d spent our childhood hiking, camping, boating, fishing, hunting, farming, and so on, and we entered the field because we loved nature and wanted to keep it clean – or help clean it up. We not only had the academics in college, but we also had a lot of “field experience” before we got to the academics. What that did was give us a rather pragmatic view of regulations. It wasn’t because we didn’t understand the reasons or the theory, but because we understood “field reality.” Hence, the reasons those prior regulations had the “except for” built in. In short, the “150 feet” was an ideal, but we also knew what people were really going to do, so it was better to designate a spot where you could control it, rather than just deal with a widespread mess.
What I’ve been seeing a lot of these days in talking to the new generation is that they lack the experiences we had growing up. They’re from urban and suburban areas, their contact with nature tends to be through the media or with trips to various parks or group hikes. They go to college and get the theory and the science, and then their jobs often involve working … in an office. It’s not that they may not want to be out in nature, but a lot of the jobs have moved to “office work” rather than “field work.” The end result has been that we’re getting new regulations like the one I mentioned, where the exception has been stripped out.
It’s sad in a way, because down the line these people are going to find out the hard way that there was a reason the exceptions were put in. It wasn’t because we (as one APA ecologist said to me) “don’t understand the environmental principles,” but because we also understood people. When someone is looking for a spot to pitch a tent after a day of hiking, or a place to pull over and camp for the night on a canoe trip, they’re not going to look or hike 50 yards off the trail or shore. They’re going to do it right on an “obvious” place, and ignore that place back in the woods. The “by the book” places will be unused, while the “obvious” spots will have a mess … and it won’t be pretty. Hopefully, the lessons we knew coming in will make it through the divide, before it gets to that point.