Not long ago, a friend misheard the phrase ‘eco-tourism.’ She thought the speaker had said ‘eco-terrorism.’ An easy auditory confusion. And it got me thinking what—if anything—the difference was.

Eco-terrorism has been back in the news with the recent convictions of several members of the Earth Liberation Front up in the Pacific Northwest. They admitted torching a timber company office and to that dramatic arson of the Two Elks ridge-top cafeteria at Vail. At least one young arsonist professed rather abject regret, I thought, for his role in the movement. I was disappointed in him. He could have shown a little more gumption.

Of course destruction of property is a crime, even carefully-planned, nobody-gets-hurt, symbolically-freighted property destruction. And I understand the environmental movement—once enamored of Earth First! theater—has more or less rejected monkey-wrenching in favor of lawyers and lobbying. Still, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for the day the news broke about the Vail fire. Or the day somebody incinerated all those Hummers in a Southern California car lot. Message received, loud and clear.


Spurred by the righteous indignation of Saint Abbey (and by our own misguided sense of defending certain landscapes), friends of mine have engaged in small-scale acts of eco-sabotage. It happens while hiking or mountain biking, and they come upon those little orange-flagged surveyor’s stakes indicating a new subdivision or a new road in the making. It’s a simple thing to yank them up and hurl them to the wind.

Childish, yes; it does little to slow the march of trophy-home progress across the mesas. But satisfying in that the developers will have to redo the work. And they’ll know, if they didn’t already, that there is at least some Seldom-Seen resistance out there. Not everyone is thrilled the bulldozers have arrived with their gifts of civilization.

Eco-tourism, on the other hand, has long been promoted as a saving grace for Telluride and mountain communities across the West. I’m not sure exactly what eco-tourism is, but I think it means attracting sensitized individuals and small groups to your region for benign, perhaps educational purposes. Like climate scientists gathering in Silverton, for example. Or backcountry skiers coming to sample the earn-your-turns terrain off Red Mountain Pass. Birdwatchers. Fly fishers. Wildflower photographers. Appreciators and believers, most likely, in the preservation of the wild places they come to see.

Meanwhile, they drop serious coin on the local dining and lodging establishments, maybe hire a guide, rent a bike, attend a seminar, but in the end go home and leave no trace.

This as opposed to the industrial tourism that Edward Abbey so loathed: the infrastructure and extravagance brought by lift-served skiing; the chemical artificiality of golfing; the noise and power of the infernal combustion engine—Jeeps and Pisten Bullys, ATVs and snowmobiles. And, I’m sorry to say it, the massive travel and resource-related impacts attending the big concerts and festivals.

But isn’t tourism, whatever prefix you attach, always a form of economic and social imperialism? Softer in some ways than the mining and timbering of the extractive age, but still massively impactful on the planet? And in this sense, isn’t eco-tourism just a kinder, gentler imperialism?

A couple of winters ago, I sailed the Pacific coasts of Panama and Costa Rica with a friend. It was an education in self-sufficiency: we ate the fish we caught, along with local bananas, coconuts and limes; we made our own drinking water. We burned diesel fuel only when the wind was not there to push us.

It was also an education in the evolution of tourist economies. Most of the Panamanian coastal villages we saw had no tourist facilities whatsoever, though there was one primitive, gringo-run surf camp and another—perhaps the first?—gringo-financed eco-resort under construction. The people in these places lived simply, fishing still-rich waters and building boats by hand from timber cut in the jungle. They were generous with us, open and curious. They didn’t have a lot, but it was enough, it seemed.

In Costa Rica, by contrast, the tourism transformation was well under way. Some of it was cloaked in the ‘eco’ name: resorts that conserved electricity and water and that educated their guests on the wonders of the cloud forest or the coral reef. But the Americans and the Euros who flocked there had to burn a lot of jet fuel do so. And they required more taxis and cars and trucks and buses and more asphalt to get them to where they wanted to go, to the marvels of nature they had come to see. In comfort.

There were more jobs for the locals, yes, and ‘higher’ standards of living for some. But also more traffic, more pollution, more open land gobbled up, more money to be made, more shit to buy. And a more defensive posture, it seemed to me, when it came to us tourists. There was a definite chip on some shoulders, as if we gringos fit somewhere between a necessary evil and an occupying force.

So, yes, I am a little murky about the meanings of eco-tourism and eco-terrorism. If you were a Panamanian islander with a cinderblock house and a beautifully-sharp machete. . . If you were an elk in a million-dollar meadow, or a lynx in prime ski expansion terrain, might you be tempted to see your coming displacement by ‘eco-friendly’ development as a terrorist act?

~ Peter Shelton directed the ski school in Telluride (1977-78) before beginning a career in journalism. He earned the North American Snowsport Journalists Association ‘Ski Writer of the Year’ award four times.


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