Officials, students brainstorm how to teach wilderness ethics to millennials |

Officials, students brainstorm how to teach wilderness ethics to millennials

Several groups of hikers walk along the main trail to Summit County's Quandary Peak last August, one of the state's busiest hikes.
Hugh Carey /

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. – Dozens of land management agency and outdoors representatives from across the state packed into a conference room at the Beaver Run Resort in Breckenridge Thursday morning to attempt to answer the following question: What’s the best way to relay proper wilderness ethics to millennials?

The discussion was centered around a presentation led by Vanessa Mazal, senior program manager for the Colorado Parks Conservation Association, and a group of environmental studies students at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

This year, Mazal and the students, who are pursuing their master’s degrees, have put together a capstone project that will result in a guidebook they will share with land management agencies, like the ones in attendance Thursday. And the guidebook will glean information from literature reviews, stakeholder conversations, focus groups and an online survey that launched earlier this week at:

“What we are trying to get at is the motivations,” CU student Kailyn Hasovec told the crowd. “How do we message to imply restraint and respect and address some of those issues such as entitlement and the peer-to-peer influence? What style of tone and messaging activates change among this demographic, as well as where are they receiving their information and what is the right place for us to intervene?”

The presentation and conversation touched on several different topics, outlined below in 10 key takeaways. But the overall conversation centered around what is driving millennials to recreate in the wilderness when these same people may not have ventured there in past generations. And the answer to that question from both the presenters and attendees centered around how the variable of social media has changed many of their reasons to go outdoors.

“People want an experience,” Mazal said, “and in some ways, that experience is within their body rather than connected to the surroundings.”

“I think millenials are really trading in social media currency,” one attendee said from the crowd. “So it drives things like the selfie phenomenon, and there is a lot of sort-of instant gratification and surface-image level relation.”

“Adrenaline movement” was the term Mazal used to describe how many millenials are seeking to go to places or attempt things in the outdoors that may be against the law, unsafe or out of their comfort zone.

During the discussion, attendees asked if and how things like adventure films and videos and online contests or challenges may be encouraging millenials to attempt these things.

“Perception of this kind of lifestyle they want to live is a lot of what drives these bad ethics,” one attendee said, “and have you considered the use of thought leaders in millenials?

“There was recently an athleisure brand that did this handstand competition,” the attendee continued, “to do the best handstand somewhere. And the person who won did this crazy handstand on a ledge that was extremely dangerous. So how do you get private companies and especially major brand leaders that promote the outdoors, or major athletes, to promote that lifestyle of ethically responsible situations?”

The students relayed that several stakeholders they spoke with mentioned how graffiti on natural surfaces and rocks at national parks is on the rise in the southwest region.

This reality echoed the sentiment through the discussion that many millennial recreationalists new to the outdoors within the past decade simply don’t know proper wilderness ethics, as did the following anecdote from a hike to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

“People are trying to be generous and are leaving their gloves for someone else to take and get to the summit,” CU student Alicia Tigges said, “but without anyone there to pick them up, they get wet and rot on the face of the rock.”

The CU student Malling relayed that their focus group research suggested millenials will listen with a humorous message, though that message should be fully comedic and, if necessary, even a bit crass.

“What we got out of it was if you are going to do humor, do it all out,” she said. “Or don’t do it at all.”

Toward the end of the session, one attendee suggested programs such as Leave No Trace, with its detailed seven principles, are simply too much for most millenials to digest before a maiden trip to the wilderness.

“Messaging has to be shorter, faster, precise, not ambiguous,” the attendee said.

Mazal and the CU students were adamant that if the land management agency representatives in the room were targeting their millennial audiences via Facebook, to redirect those efforts to Instagram.

“It’s a starting place before they look into further where they’d like to go,” Hasovec said.

The group said they were surprised to find that simple signage deterred millenials better than more complicated, even artistic signs.

“This demographic was more inclined to follow a traditional brown sign than some of the more modern signs coming out,” Hasovec said. “The graphics made the area look a bit more enticing.”

Another key topic was that the communication space between land management agencies and millenials is more segmented than ever before. Case in point: Not every one is reading the same messages from the back of cereal boxes anymore.

“It was a lot easier to reach people with a cereal box,” Mazal said. “There were fewer points of intervention, people, as we suggested earlier, were watching the same TV shows, right? And now we have a very fragmented communication space and people are paying attention and have the opportunity to pay attention and consider people ‘peers’ they never met because they are connected on social media.”

Mazal also highlighted the variable of more people living in cities compared to 30 years ago. With the trend, it means more recreationalists may be coming from locations where they are just not aware of proper ethics.

“That is definitely a trend that helps to compound the problem,” she said.

Tigges said the group also realized the importance of reaching, say, people who are more interested in Bitcoin than Backpacker Magazine. The reason being? That those reading Backpacker Magazine are already in tune with principles and ethics, while those Bitcoin miners may just not know enough before their trip.

“We want to be very inclusive in our survey and messaging to make sure we are reaching the kid from New York City who it never occurred to him to read John Muir,” she said. “They are not responding to that and that’s not where their interests are, but they may want to go on a hike in Rocky Mountain.”

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