Land Conservation: Who Is It For?

An interesting email popped up in my inbox this week and I’ve been mulling it over in my head. Through a long series of events, one of the runners at the Antelope Canyon race had the list of runner emails, and sent a critical email to the race director, including all of us in the message. And what was his reasoning?

He disliked the race course at Antelope Canyon.

Less notable were his complaints of the sand. He argued that the deep sand was too tough of a course and that it should have been advertised as such prior to the event. I guess I see his point but I don’t really agree; to me, trail running is an adventure and if you prep runners for every single obstacle, it takes the thrill out of the race. We live in a society that wants to be prepared for everything; what’s wrong with a little surprise?


More noteworthy were his complaints of the environmental damage caused by the runners. I don’t know which distance this man ran, but I assume he is referring to the 10-mile off-trail section through Navajo land. He argued that runners were smashing cryptobiotic soil and breaking fragile sandstone, damaging the environment far beyond anything natural.

Personally, I know that Heidi and I did not do these things. Having explored the desert on multiple trips, I’m very aware of cryptobiotic soil–biological soil crusts that help with soil stabilization, water relations and nutrient delivery in plants–and went out of my way to avoid stepping on any of the black surfaces. Yes, cryptobiotic soil was all over the course but it was easy to avoid; you just had to be willing to trudge through more ankle-deep sand!


However, I can’t promise that every runner was as aware or educated as I am in this regard. In fact, I remember Will and I explaining cryptobiotic soil to friends during last year’s Canyonlands adventure. Our friends are avid outdoorsmen but since they hadn’t spent a ton of time in the desert, they were unaware of the fragile nature of the black soil. I’m sure many Antelope Canyon runners were in the same boat; they just didn’t know.

Obviously this is a case for more education prior to the race. To me, that’s an easy way to fix this potential problem. The tougher question comes when I start to evaluate conservation on the whole. I’ve mentioned it before but I’m a huge advocate of Leave No Trace ethics and go out of my way to ensure I leave a wilderness area the same–or better–than it was when I arrived. But in this particular instance with Antelope Canyon, this critical runner argued that we shouldn’t have even been in this private, off-road Navajo land. He believes we should leave it unspoiled and pristine.

Aldo Leopold, considered to be the father of wilderness conservation, once said that, “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”


And to me, that is the takeaway.

Why are we conserving land if not for us? Of course, I’m not saying we should encroach upon every square mile of land possible. That said, it should be with love, respect and understanding that we trespass into these wilderness areas, acknowledging that it is our responsibility to keep them as virgin as possible. I don’t think the Antelope Canyon race did anything wrong when it designed its course; I do think the RD needs to educate people prior to the event so that every runner can do his part to preserve the integrity of the course’s natural structure.

And perhaps its selfish. I flourish in the wilderness and it breaks my heart to think that one day my children will be unable to explore the wild due to legalities brought about by our generation. I shudder to think of that world.


What is your stance on conservation? Do you believe we preserve it for our use or do we preserve it for the sake of conservation and the natural world?


  • Reply Art at

    Conservation is for the general good. I think it is oversimplifying to say that conservation is either for us, or for the natural world. We are conserving because not conserving leads to disaster.
    That being said, there are very few areas which the separate goals of conservation are not able to be both met. In the case of cryptobiotic soil or stalagmites/rock formations which take thousands of years to form, it is easy to see (though not widely known) that human contact is detrimental. In the most cases, however, human contact with the wilderness and conservation are not mutually exclusive goals, and that is encouraging. Education is obviously key.

  • Reply Amiee at

    Thank you for addressing this! I really wanted to reply to that email and well that just wasn’t the place. I ran the 55K and saw very little cryptobiotic soil all of which was easily avoidable if you stuck close to the course markings and on the slickrock and in the sand. As for the sand, it is the DESERT! The course descriptions mentioned the sand, all of the race reports from last year mentioned copious amounts of sand, and the race director email warned us that the sand was especially soft and deep this year because of the lack of precipitation. The guy also complained about his toes hitting the front of his shoes, which was not the sand’s fault or the race director’s fault – he just needs a bigger pair of shoes!!!

  • Reply Kovas - Midwest Multisport Life at

    To me there has to be a balance of the two – to conserve land and make it off-limits denies the point of conserving it, to have a wild place to visit. That being said, those visits can be organized in a way as to minimize impact.

  • Reply Heather @ FITaspire at

    I agree with your position – preserving so that future generations can enjoy our beautiful lands as much as we do. Making it off limits doesn’t make sense to me – we should rather focus on educating people on how to interact respectfully!

  • Reply Lynn (Tahoe Fabulous) at

    I think about this a lot. I work in watershed restoration and environmental education, and one of the things that we do is trail building. We sometimes have people argue that trail building isn’t restoration, but the way I see it is that a well built trail is way better for the environment than a poorly built one, or a social trail. They reduce erosion run off, keep people out of sensitive areas, etc. Also, I think exposing people to nature is a critical component to conservation, as people don’t care as much about what they don’t know.

  • Reply Michael at

    A little background, I have been active in the outdoors all my life. In the U.S. and around the world, C.A. S.A. the Continent and Africa. I have skied, climbed, hiked, camped all my life. That being said I’m very concerned about a trend I see in the outdoors and the governing bodies that oversee these areas. That would be state and federal regulators and private/public entities. Due to operating campgrounds via a private company for the U.S. Forest Service in National Forests of N. California I have several years of working hand in hand with F.S. on many different levels. This also included working with different groups and clubs that wanted to put events on public land. I will tell you that the attitude towards the public in general and their access to public lands in some cases would astound you. I have found that individually, many public employees and club representatives believe that the public lands are just that, public. More than you can imagine want to see them severely restricted to the public because they just don’t know how to use them properly. The F.S. has been closing roads, trails, primitive camps, dispersed camping, rafting, swimming, hot springs etc. at a rate never before seen . To be fair some of this is because of actual misuse of the forest, pot grows, squatting, small scale gold mining resulting in water shed issues, forest fires, the list of abuse is long. My point is these actions are being used to close off your law abiding enjoyment of this resource. Vigilance on our part is important. When restriction goes unchallenged it spreads. If government can keep everyone out then their job becomes much simpler. I don’t mean to sound like an alarmist, but I, like many others, am very concerned.

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