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Wilderness Environmental Ethics &
Responsible Ecotourism

by Cliff Speer

Environmental Quiz - Test your knowledge of backcountry and environmental ethics

Freedom and Responsibility

Freedom is the essence of wilderness canoeing. Freedom to escape everyday routine and stress. Freedom to be restored by unsullied Nature. Freedom to explore new frontiers, within and without. This is the lure of wilderness canoeing...

But wait, there must be a catch. Ah, yes. No doubt you've heard it before: "With much freedom comes much responsibility." It is an axiom, as inescapable in the natural world as it is in other worlds. But the truth of it has taken a while to sink into the collective consciousness.

Once upon a time, hardy adventurers marched into the bush to tame the wilderness. Nature's rules were ignored. The human species had dominion; Nature was subject. Freedom meant doing anything you pleased. Responsibility to protect the Earth and preserve its goodness was unheard of in most camps.

Treading Softly and Being Respectful

We have now entered a new era. The light has dawned on the tarnished legacy of a natural environment besmirched and degraded. We are beginning to understand, in a small way, the consequences of ignoring Nature's call to responsibility. The basic change that has occurred is seeing ourselves as part of Nature - part of the Earth's ecology, not as independent masters of the universe. This view of life is an ecological one; a way of acknowledging the fundamental interconnectedness of creation. For canoeists and other self-propelled wilderness travellers, this understanding should translate into an ecological ethic. The essence of this ethic is - tread softly and be a respectful visitor.

Wilderness canoeists have a running start in the treading softly department. A canoe leaves no trace of its passage. It is powered by renewable energy. In the days of the Indigenous birchbark craft, construction was entirely of renewable natural materials. A canoe is historically the quintessential eco-vehicle. But we have to land sooner or later. At this point, the doctrine of "minimum-impact" becomes the camper's credo - pitching camp, building fires, washing and disposing of waste - all are conducted with minimum disturbance to the environment.

On the respectful visitor theme, most people know how to behave when they drop in on their neighbors. It is amazing how this basic social awareness seems to fly right out the tent flap when some people park themselves in the wilderness. They see wild recreational areas as a vast "no man's land" - uninhabited by anything worthy of respect, existing for their pleasure only. Fortunately, there are many others whose eco-senses are sharpened to the point they are keen to discover the people who occupy, or who once occupied the land, and to respectfully explore their culture and way of life, and accord dignity to it. Their concept of showing respect extends to expressing appreciation. They feel obligated to give something back for the privilege of being enriched by either the natural or cultural environment. This could translate into supporting local community services or contributing to local wilderness conservation programs.

Responsible Ecotourism in Saskatchewan

Tourism and Nature have been long-standing bedfellows. The environmental movement has intensified this relationship resulting in a form of nature tourism with an ecological bias - called ecotourism. Over the past decade or so, the concept of ecotourism has evolved and incorporated growing concerns about conservation and sustainability. Today's emphasis is on personal responsibility, not only for Nature's health, but also for the well-being of people directly affected by ecotourism. The "eco" has expanded to include the socio-cultural dimension along with the biophysical. We now have an upgraded notion of what it means to be responsible ecotourists. Wilderness canoeists are part of this group if they subscribe to this expanded concept of responsibility. Saskatchewan's position and the ethical implications for individuals follows next.

Early in 1996, the Provincial government unveiled an ambitious strategy to develop and promote ecotourism in Saskatchewan within a sustainable framework. Here is a capsule definition of an ecotourist gleaned from the strategy report. An ecotourist is one who seeks "an enlightening nature travel experience that contributes to conservation of the ecosystem, and to the cultural and economic resources of the host communities." The characteristics associated with this definition reveal that an ecotourist:

  1. Supports conservation and ecosystem protection. (See list of environmental organizations you can become involved in or contribute to.)
  2. Follows conservation principles of reduce, reuse, recycle in daily living and travelling habits.
  3. Accepts Nature on its own terms, not expecting it to change or be modified for the traveller's convenience.
  4. Follows minimum impact travel practices (e.g., small groups, car pooling to destination, pack in/pack out, washing/waste management, avoids disturbing flora, fauna and fragile terrain).
  5. Supports local community services where possible, and contributes to local environmental and conservation agencies responsible for the areas the ecotourist visits.
  6. Respects local cultures and traditional lifestyles.
  7. Becomes as informed about local environmental, cultural and resource issues, and about wilderness use regulations as possible. Seeks information on unique natural (e.g., rare or endangered species), historical and cultural features of the selected travel area.
  8. Chooses outfitters, guides and interpreters, and travel companions who promote and practice responsible ecotourism.
  9. Patronizes tourism facilities that conduct their operations in an ecologically and socially responsible manner.
  10. Prefers travelling to parks and protected areas that by virtue of their designation are stewards of the environment.
  11. Seeks first-hand experiences that provide mental and physical challenges, enhance natural and cultural awareness, and stimulate spiritual and personal growth.

Toward A Sustainable Future for Saskatchewan Canoeing
A Discussion of Issues

Sustainability in the ecotourism field involves maintaining viable natural and human communities over the long term. The ideas presented here are meant to provoke discussion about changes and new directions to encourage responsible ecotourism and improve the long-term sustainability of Saskatchewan's wilderness canoeing areas. We encourage you to get involved in activities that will contribute to this objective.

Eco-Education - A Primary Responsibility

Education is the starting point for a better global environmental future. At home, in Saskatchewan canoe country, we have good reason for moving forward on the educational front. First, there is enough evidence along canoe routes to conclude that some people don't know anything about eco-ethics. Most people won't persist in inappropriate behavior if shown a better way, and education is certainly the most economical way to encourage exemplary behavior. Secondly, lack of "how-to" information implies that behavior in the great outdoors is not an ethical issue. With no expectations being set, people tend to do as they please. Abuse of natural amenities, and eventually a loss of everyone's freedom to enjoy unsullied Nature, results. To prevent this calamity, wilderness users need to know that somebody cares enough about the environment to establish and communicate the necessary ethical expectations.

Who should do the educating? The tendency is to look to the government when public wilderness lands are involved, as is the case with canoeing. Government's role should be to develop a sustainable resource management policy that includes explicit guidelines for the use of the resources by both the public and the outfitting industry. At present, we need leadership in this area. A thorough, well-reasoned set of wilderness environmental ethics endorsed by Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management should be communicated to all wilderness users, including canoeists.

How do we reach canoeists? To begin with, responsible wilderness travel information should be part of the canoeing literature provided by all tourism outlets. It should also be available at other points of contact with canoeists, e.g., park offices, schools, clubs, associations, retail canoe/camping stores, outfitters, map distribution centres, etc.

Eco-education doesn't necessarily begin or end with government. Informed individuals have a one-on-one role to play with friends and travelling companions. Educational institutions have major responsibilities to foster positive eco-ethical values. When it comes to modelling exemplary behavior for students, there is a real need for more leadership here as well. Many schools have strong outdoor education and canoeing programs with skilled leaders. But there is room for others to upgrade their programs. Pedagogy must be applied equally in the wilderness as it is in the classroom. But it must be applied first to the educators and trip leaders. Only then can it be credibly passed on to their learners. Students are the wilderness leaders of tomorrow - best to prepare them well today.

Safety and eco-ethics go hand in hand. A well-documented treatment of canoeing safety and ethical issues is contained in the South Saskatchewan River EcoCanoe Guide under "Safety and Enjoyment" and "Respecting the River and its Resources" (see recommended reading section). In general, we need a much stronger emphasis on paddling/camping/safety/leadership skills training. Again, a greater initiative is needed in this area, particularly from Saskatchewan Education, school boards, clubs, associations, and informal canoeing groups. It is irresponsible, and potentially environmentally detrimental, to dash off into the wilderness unskilled and ill-prepared to cope with natural hazards. It is, ultimately, the antithesis of education.

What do you think?

Who's Doing What to Whom
User Impact Evaluation

Presently, nobody knows how many people are canoeing Saskatchewan waterways, nor has any analysis been made of the impacts. Evidence of abuse is apparent in localized areas, particularly those of high use like the Otter Rapids/Devil Lake and the immediate upstream area of the Churchill River. Downstream, the Robertson Falls and Stanley Rapids locations are also showing various forms of abuse from improper waste disposal to scarcity of firewood and cutting of live trees. Some campsites on the Clearwater River are fast becoming denuded of firewood. These are just a few of the areas showing signs of user stress. Because no research has been done, there is no data to indicate which sub groups of the canoeing community are contributing to the problem and to what degree. Nor is there any data to substantiate the suspicion that other user groups may be causing more severe impacts than canoeists in multi-use areas.

We need an evaluation and monitoring program to gather this kind of data. Such a program should start in known areas of high use/abuse and be expanded to include the entire Province once it is administratively and financially feasible. Some creative thinking and partnering would be required to finance and operate such a program, but it wouldn't take an overwhelming effort to begin with the areas most needing attention. The end objective of gathering some reliable data would be to devise plans for eliminating abusive practices, reducing user impacts, and rehabilitating degraded areas.

What do you think?

Backcountry Registration
Impractical or Inevitable?

With the exception of Prince Albert National Park, permits are not required for canoe/camping in the Province. The idea of backcountry use permits doesn't sit well with some veteran canoeists, although they admit it may be inevitable. One big question is how to encourage cooperation if registration is mandatory. Some canoeists feel that eco-education should be pursued vigorously to help curtail poor user practices, and registration should be a last resort. On the positive side, issuing user permits could provide:
  1. A point of contact to get all the critical information (re safety and eco-ethics) into the user's hands.
  2. A much-needed record of use to help in evaluating impact and in planning to reduce it.
  3. A way for users to contribute to canoe route/campsite clean-up and maintenance, if fees were attached to permits.
  4. Funds for conservation and eco-educational programs affecting canoeists, if fees were applied.
  5. A way to control access to congested areas or to abused areas needing restoration.
  6. A way to limit group size in keeping with the ecological carrying capacity of specific areas. Some groups are much too large for the areas they travel into with all the related problems of excess environmental stress and supervision of group behavior.
The cost and logistics of administering a province-wide registration system have to be considered. The experience of other jurisdictions employing such systems would be worthwhile to look at. Again, some creative thinking and partnering between government, canoeing companies and organizations, and student employment programs could quite likely result in a workable pilot scheme for implementing a permit process.

What do you think?

Quotas & Biffy Boxes

As previously mentioned, there are canoeing areas that, due to over use and abuse, are needing remedial action now. In fact, in some cases the need is so obvious that it isn't necessary to wait till user data is gathered to start a rehabilitation program. These high use areas can be easily pinpointed and resources directed to developing remedial measures immediately.

What should such a program entail? Here is one view presented by an environmental lobby group called Friends of the Churchill to the March 95 Churchill River Heritage Conference. The Friends' proposal deals with designating the Devil Lake to Barker Lake portion of the Churchill as a "special management area". Briefly, it recommends such measures as restricting access (quota system), designating campsites on bedrock areas, using `biffy boxes" with pack-out human waste containers, laws against cutting live trees, posting educational information and regulations on site, closing campsites needing rehabilitation, and restricting motorized activity. The group recommends formation of a users' group committee to implement and enforce a management plan.

This case is an example of the seemingly drastic measures needed to rehabilitate and sustain a wilderness canoeing area suffering from abuse. It is a poignant reminder that if we don't soon adopt a comprehensive, ecologically sustainable management scheme for all Saskatchewan canoeing areas, we'll be looking at more and more areas needing severe rehabilitation like Barker/Devil Lakes. Preventative measures are always less messy than major clean-up efforts!

What do you think?

Recommended Reading

A Canoeists Manual for the Promotion of Environmental and Ethical Concerns, published by and available from Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association

Earth in Mind, David Orr (1994)

EcoTourism in Saskatchewan, Report I & II (1996), Anderson/Fast Marketing Solutions, Saskatoon

Home Place - Essays on Ecology, Stan Rowe (1990)

How To Shit In The Woods, Kathleen Meyer (1989)

In the Spirit of the Earth, Calvin Martin (1992)

Saskatchewan's State of the Environment Report 1995, Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management

Softpaths - How to Enjoy the Wilderness Without Harming It, Bruce Hampton and David Cole

South Saskatchewan River EcoCanoe Guide, Meewasin Valley Authority, Saskatoon

The Churchill: A Canadian Heritage River, Peter Jonker, ed. (1995)

The National Outdoor Leadership School's Outdoor Guide, Peter Simer and John Sullivan (1983)

Tom Brown's Field Guide to Living with the Earth, Tom Brown, Jr. and Brandt Morgan (1984)

Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Concepts and Cases, Julian Inglis, ed. (1993)

Organizations Promoting Conservation and Eco-Ethics

Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association
446 Main St. W, P.O. Box 398, Merrickville, ON K0G 1N0

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
410 Richmond St. W., Ste. 380, Toronto, ON M5V 3A8

Dore/Smoothstone Wilderness Protection Association
2604 Preston Ave., Saskatoon, SK S7H 2G5

Friends of The Churchill
Box 2261, Moose Jaw, SK S6H 7W6

Nature Saskatchewan
206 1860 Lorne St, Regina, SK, S4P 2L7 Phone: 306-780-9273

Saskatchewan Watchable Wildlife Association
2154 Airport Dr., Saskatoon, SK S7L 6M6

Saskatchewan Environmental Society
Box 1372, Saskatoon, SK S7K 3N9

Saskatchewan Outdoor Education and Environmental Association
572 -St. Ave. N.E. Swift Current, Sk. S9H 2B7
Ph. 306-773-1938

Tread Lightly
Box 22049, Westmount Postal Outlet, Waterloo, ON N2L 6J7

Western Canada Wilderness Committee
1200 Hornby St. Vancouver, B.C. V6Z 2E2

©1997 CanoeSki Discovery Company

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