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The Impossibility of Ethical Recreation on Stolen Land

A rock climber bolting over ancient petroglyphs in Utah has sparked a broader debate about how tourists interact with “public land” in America.

People walk toward a natural rock formation.
Arches National Park near Moab, Utah

Over the past two weeks, a scandal has enveloped Western climbing circles. At its center is a 36-year-old military veteran, Richard Gilbert, who, as of last week, has admitted to and apologized for vandalizing a series of Indigenous petroglyphs with climbing bolts.

The petroglyphs in question, located in Utah, were created by the Fremont people, who lived in the region that now encompasses Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada, roughly a millennium ago. Gilbert, when confronted by fellow climbers in an online forum, claimed ignorance, describing the works of art as “graffiti,” according to Climbing magazine. “Honestly, to me,” he wrote in a since-deleted post, “it looked like a group of high school kids got high AF and chiseled the rock.”

The story is pretty hard to buy. As Climbing noted, only two weeks earlier Gilbert had posted a photo caption on one of the three offending routes he’d bolted, writing, “Petroglyph of a man holding a spear!”

The case blew up in a predictable fashion. Gilbert and his workplace have been flooded with criticisms and occasional death threats. The Bureau of Land Management confirmed to The Colorado Springs Gazette that it has initiated an investigation, which, if successful in finding Gilbert guilty of bolting the petroglyphs, carries a hefty fine and potential jail time. And Gilbert, realizing the weight and consequences of his actions, has since publicly apologized, telling the Gazette last Friday that while he was bolting the easy routes to assist both disabled climbers and beginners, “mistakes are made, and that doesn’t make it any better I know. It’s not. I made a mistake.”

In the wake of the scandal, KUNC reported last week, both national forest offices and the Bureau of Land Management are facing calls to more actively track, measure, and respond to the number of people using trails on public lands. But when the most recent incident is laid alongside a number of similar stories from the past few years, it’s hard to escape the feeling that there’s a broader conversation yet to take place. The question threaded throughout the many tales of hikers and off-roaders messing up isn’t just one about federal responsibility or human fallibility. It’s much bigger: Can the people of a colonizing power ethically participate in mass recreation on lands they still don’t fully understand or appreciate—or rightfully own?

Indian Country’s relationship to the national and state park system is supremely complicated. Last summer, I reported on the consequences of the pandemic-driven surge in outdoor activities, flooding states and national parks with visitors. The deluge put the tribal nations that border these parks in a precarious position, with the pandemic raging among Native communities. It simultaneously served as a reminder that many of these same tribes have been forced to build portions of their economies around servicing American and foreign tourists. As Dr. Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and a sociology professor at UCLA, told me, “Unemployment rates are so high that summer jobs are basically what get people through the year.” Again, in plain terms: Indigenous populations, who were forcefully removed from their homelands, were forced last summer to choose between protecting their communities or making the necessary money to keep the lights on. (Thankfully, tribes like Blackfeet Nation, Navajo Nation, and many others put the health and safety of their people first, while the states and counties around them did the opposite.)

As David Truer, an Ojibwe author from the Leech Lake Reservation, wrote for The Atlantic’s April cover story, many of these so-called untouched lands that now stand under the National Park Service’s control were stewarded by Native communities for thousands of years before the existence of America as a concept in the European mind. Truer’s piece—a brilliant, exhaustive argument for returning the national parks to federally recognized tribes—landed as a prescient reminder of how hard many, many individuals and government agencies in the United States have worked to bury these truths. But it was also a chance to reexamine the human-land relationships the park system and recreational tourism encourage.

Outside of Indian Country, the explosion of the recreational tourism industry over the last half-century has shown the toll that a recreation-based economy can take on tight-knit communities, even as it funds them in some ways. In February, Zak Podmore of The Salt Lake Tribune reported on the noise pollution situation in Moab, Utah, a town of 5,400 residents that, in recent years, has played host to an exploding number of tourists looking to ride dirt bikes, four-wheelers, and utility terrain vehicles through the neighboring Sand Flats Recreation Area. The noise from dozens of UTVs rumbling down Main Street and Mill Creek Drive at all hours of the day and night has gotten so bad that many in the community are contemplating leaving town.

The city council, largely hamstrung by a state law preventing them from issuing a curfew on the off-highway vehicles, has passed ordinances to lower the speed limit and put moratoriums on new UTV business licenses and ATV-related special events permits—temporary mitigation efforts. Last month, the Moab Sun News reported that the town’s residents and business owners are stuck: Where bike rentals cratered amid the explosion of UTVs on Moab’s streets, UTV rentals are now supposedly dropping because of the speed limits. All the while, new parents like Josie Kovash and Anthony Charles, whom the Tribune interviewed, have found it impossible to depend on a full night’s sleep for their infants.

We can’t lay all modern tourism’s sins solely at the feet of the industry; individual responsibility clearly plays a role. Gilbert’s mistake, if we are to believe his claim that he took the petroglyphs for graffiti, was defined by his ignorance. It’s like the story of the nine-year-old girl who, in June 2019, was sent flying through the air by a full-grown bison at Yellowstone National Park while her parents stood off to the side. Some people know to move themselves and their kids away from a half-ton animal; many don’t. Some know better than to drill a low-grade climbing route into a wall without taking a moment to observe their surroundings; many don’t.

Taking the most optimistic of views, one could conclude that these instances of human error are ultimately solvable: With the correct mix of public education and more robust data for park use and forest admissions, American tourism and recreation can be reformed. But I’m not convinced it’s that simple.

In January, The New Yorker profiled David Lesh, a skier, businessperson, and provocateur from Colorado who, in 2019, rose to infamy for driving a snowmobile through a federally protected wildlife area. Lesh, sensing the opportunity to capitalize on this infamy, played into the character depicted by the press and conservationist circles. A few months after he ripped through the Rockies, he posted a photo to social media showing him taking a shit in another federally protected wildlife area, this time a high-alpine lake close to Aspen. His message was clear and straightforward: The parks and these lands are not so much things to be treasured and maintained and viewed as equals, but more a backdrop for amassing clout and clicks.

Of course, one can draw a distinction between ignorance and the flat-out stupidity of Instagram assholes like Lesh. But both forms of interaction ultimately lead to the same destruction of natural habitats and artworks that were long—and still are, in many cases—stewarded by Indigenous communities. These individuals, products of a culture of colonization, conceptualize their relationship with nature as a one-way street: Nature provides—be it a wall to climb, a scene to shoot, or a buck to be made—and humans take, without ever having to think of offering anything in return. The needs of both the land itself and the other people on it are obliterated by a kind of individualist presumption. More often than not, they don’t even enter into the picture.

In a column for Mountain Journal published last August, Todd Wilkinson, the magazine’s founder, offered a resounding critique of the unabated development underway in the Greater Yellowstone area in southwest Montana. He pointed to the explosion in real estate construction and the accompanying increase in trail and river usage, as well as the “overwhelming whiteness” of these new residents, observing that the economic motivations undergirding the boom in both real estate and recreational tourism generally have not been pursued with consideration for the lands and waterways being tapped. Toward the end of his piece, Wilkinson posed a question that’s stuck with me since I first read it: “How is the blind promotion of more outdoor recreation on public lands, without knowing the cumulative effects, any different from the colonizing, destructive forces of Manifest Destiny?”

Other rock climbers, or more clued-in Yellowstone tourists, may criticize Gilbert’s or the Yellowstone parents’ entitlement or arrogance, without perceiving this broader context. These forms of personal presumption exist within a larger cocktail of capitalistic greed and a deeply embedded anti-Indigenous sentiment that has molded both leisurely tourism and recreational industries since their beginnings. While conservationists and environmentalist spheres over the past decade may have slowly begun to actively consider and advocate for Indigenous land management, the same grace has not been extended by industry forces that view nature as a financial vehicle or by a federal government that sees its national park system as a testament to America’s best self. Untangling these belief systems is a much more difficult task than tracking how many people hiked a certain trail.