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Maximilian Werner: Humans are not the most important creatures on the planet

Tourists inevitably destroy the landscapes they most want to visit.

(Photo courtesy of the National Park Service) Visitors to Zion National Park line up at the Grotto Trailhead to wait for their chance to hike Angel's Landing on Sunday.

Oppressed by the constant threat of COVID, cabin fever and, more recently, the freakish summer heat, a few days ago I did what many of my fellow Utahans do and drove north, first to Idaho and then to Montana.

Interesting to think that after only five hours I could find myself in such beautiful and relatively untrammeled landscapes. If I had lived prior to about 160 years ago, or before the invention of the combustion engine, I may have never left my home territory, let alone travelled to distant places hundreds of miles away.

At one time I would have said that today’s humans are without a doubt better off than at any other time in human history, but today I am feeling skeptical about the human enterprise, particularly as it relates to our treatment of the nonhuman world.

Today I feel like we have failed.

As I drove north along I-15 and the Wasatch Front, over the border and past Pocatello and Idaho Falls, across the Snake River, and then up to Island Park and beyond, I was reminded of Marlow’s journey up the Congo River in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” I saw a dark menagerie of things I wish I had not seen. Animals of all kinds exploded by cars and left along the roadside in mangled heaps; yellow fields, empty rivers and dwindling reservoirs; the anxious gazes of cows crammed into trailers on their way to slaughter; thousands of harried and restless humans and their waste; and above it all an orange sun muted by a toxic haze of dust, emissions and the ash-laden smoke of wildfires burning throughout the West.

The world we are trying to escape to no longer exists except as a false idea. And yet it is precisely this idea, this lie, that we here in the West continue to buy and sell, which in turn takes us further and further away from the truth, and from change.

For instance, Utah’s Office of Tourism recently trotted out its precious Red Emerald Strategic Plan, whose purpose is to create “Utah travel experiences that are rarefied, distinctive, unique to Utah and highly coveted.”

Sounds good on the face of it, but it does not honestly reflect reality. If all we were talking about were actual emeralds, that would be one thing. But we are talking about natural environments that, as my own travels clearly demonstrate, are open to and easily accessed by the masses and therefore cannot be both rarefied and coveted at the same time.

To suggest otherwise is spin and distortion, and anyone who has braved, say, the chaos and overcrowding of Zion National Park knows it. The days of rarefied experiences are gone. But tourism is big money. Therefore, the arms race between reality and spin, truth and falsehood grinds on.

One way the UOT attempts to resolve this tension is to “focus on attracting quality visitation, which means shaping traveler itineraries to promote longer stays, increased spending, dispersed visitation throughout the state and deeper engagement with local communities.”

This curious formulation tells us a lot about the UOT’s priorities, which have almost zero to do with the preservation of the natural environment upon which all tourism depends. Rather, the UOT’s priority is catering to consumers who, regardless of their numbers, length of stay, and dollars spent invariably diminish the natural world and ultimately defeat the purpose of coming here in the first place.

People don’t want rarefied or nature on its own terms. They don’t want silence. They want amenities and comfort; they want machines and distractions; they want lies. And anyone with half a brain knows it.

Similarly, UOT’s emphasis on dispersed visitation could work if it weren’t also misguided and, therefore, more of the same. For here, as elsewhere, the dispersal’s importance — it’s focus — is limited to how its absence would negatively impact the consumer, even though the consumer is the problem. But let’s just keep on doing everything we can to make it easier for more and more people to keep doing the same stupid stuff we’ve always done without regard for the natural world.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that humans are not the most important species on the planet; we are simply the most advantaged, and that’s only by accident. We had our day in the sun and we blew it. Like the millions of other species that have quietly slipped into extinction on our watch, we are now on the fast track to oblivion. And that’s fine with me. We’re getting what we deserve.

But did we have to destroy a 4.5-billion-year-old planet and millions of other life forms in the process?

Maximilian Werner

Maximilian Werner, Salt Lake City, is the author, most recently, of “Wolves, Grizzlies, and Greenhorns — Death and Coexistence in the American West.”

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