A plane painted to look like planet Earth flies in the sky.
Design by Priya Ganji. Buy this photo.

For the past week, my dad and I have been braving the relentless southern heat and exploring a local state park. Just a mere 15 minutes from our house, it feels strange that in the middle of such a busy residential area there is a refuge for a variety of wildlife and fauna, along with about 10 miles of hiking trails. We tend to change our course each day to keep things interesting, but what remains the same is how many people have the same idea as us. Whether it be 7 a.m. or 3 p.m., the crowds always roll in, no matter the temperature.

There are almost 7,000 state parks, and 423 national parks, located in the United States. Both are active tourist attractions and vacation destinations — just last year, 4.5 million people visited Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Families and individual travelers visit national parks from across the country and abroad, all with the desire to take in the beauty and vastness of these federally protected areas. As an admirer of the views and adventure offered by national parks from coast to coast, I hope to check each of them off of my bucket list. But, for any of us to continue to be able to do this, we must take care of them so that future generations can experience the joys our planet has to offer.

As climate change ravages the planet, many politicians, activists and average people question how we may continue to enjoy the beauties of nature while also protecting it from further irreversible damage. The National Park Service has put together a “holistic approach” to tackle the various impacts of climate change in their parks, with ideas ranging from policy advocacy to scenario planning. When it comes to individual action, it feels as though even the smallest efforts make only a minute difference, or none at all — steps like using paper straws aren’t impactful enough to mitigate climate change. Most of the work falls to larger corporations, starting with taking ownership of the ways in which they have contributed to global warming, species extinctions and the demise of an undisturbed environment. 

We, too, have contributed to the damage done to the environment, especially when we visit these beautiful national parks. Carbon-emitting traffic jams and an increase in human waste from campers are just two examples of the impact an increase in tourism has had on these locales of conservation. When it comes to travel, we must find a way to be more mindful and environmentally conscious so that we may enjoy ourselves while also paying attention to the needs of nature. The best way to do this is by adhering to the rules of ecotourism.

Ecotourism was popularized in the mid-20th century as tourism rates and environmental advocacy increased alongside one another. The principles of ecotourism emphasize the importance of sustainability and conservation when we travel. Actions endorsed by ecotourists include building cultural awareness, minimizing the environmental impact of visitors, creating park facilities that deliver low environmental impacts and introducing financial benefits that encourage the preservation of biodiversity. If we want to continue enjoying the beauties of Earth, we should take note of these concepts and apply them to how we construct and treat our national parks.

There are other ways we can change our traditional travel routines, including where we go and how we get there. Staying close to home and avoiding the convenience of air travel when we travel further are the two most sizable ways in which we can reduce our carbon footprint when we travel. What we do when we vacation also influences the environment — reducing our rate of consumption and consumerism has a positive impact on local natural conditions as well. In order to travel in the most sustainable fashion, we have to pay attention to where we go, how we travel and how each move and purchase we make can either positively or negatively affect the surrounding environment. 

Taking part in sustainable travel á la ecotourism has a wide variety of effects on mitigating the changes to our climate. Its principles allow for increased cultural literacy surrounding the important relationship humans have with nature, release pressures from the environment to self-sustain and provide a wide array of services that increase awareness, job opportunities and standards of living. Still, not all consequences of travel are erased by applying the concepts of ecotourism — choosing nearby vacation destinations can still damage the environment, and there is no outdoor excursion that is perfectly environmentally conscious. No matter how hard we try, every step we take has an almost irreversible impact on the environment.

To be an ecotourist, one must be entirely committed to the cause. This means a commitment to protecting the inhabitants of the environment, supporting local and indigenous communities, and educating visitors on the impact of their travel. Taking trips to national parks or exploring different countries and their environmental offerings should be rewarding — travel is an educational and emotional endeavor that makes us happier and well-learned. To make the most of these trips and to allow future generations to have similar experiences, we have to treat the environment we take so much joy in with respect. Following the principles of ecotourism is essential in our efforts to reduce the impacts of humans and climate change on the environment and to restore the health of nature and its inhabitants. Being better tourists is the least we can do for our Earth. 

Lindsey Spencer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at lindssp@umich.edu.