As part of a tectonic feature called the Pacific Ring of Fire, the northwestern United Sates is the setting for numerous mountains of volcanic origin. Dillon author and teacher O. Alan Weltzien focuses on three of the region’s most prominent: Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood. These peaks have become iconic identifiers for local communities and important components of their economic health.
Every year, tens of thousands of people hike, climb and ski on these mountains, jamming parking lots and leaving behind vast quantities of waste.
Weltzien chronicles the origins of hiking and climbing in these areas, inspired by groups like the Mazamas and the Mountaineers, organizations that promoted commitments to “social idealism” and “common cause,” instead of personal achievement. He contrasts that idealism to today’s recreationalists, who arrive in droves with their expensive gear and clothing to hike, climb, and check a line-item off their list.
Management agencies of parks, forests and wilderness areas all struggle with the question of how to conserve these public spaces and enforce guidelines to reduce the human impact, yet still provide access.
Weltzien considers the impact that sophisticated (and expensive) gear and clothing have had on recreational pursuits, bringing people to the mountains to recreate in ever increasing numbers. Commercial guiding companies often guarantee a summit for the right price.
Bottom line, people drawn to the outdoors need to work harder at minimizing their impacts while management agencies need to adopt stricter permitting and access rules. For those of us who are accustomed to unfettered access to wild spaces, it marks a sad, but likely essential path to survival for these beloved landscapes.
Weltzien is a professor of English at University of Montana-Western in Dillon. He is the author of a memoir and two books of poetry and the editor of the Norman Maclean Reader.
– Judy Shafter