Revive ethics ads about outdoors

The Adirondacks were loaded with people on Labor Day weekend. Hikers in the High Peaks Wilderness overwhelmed Adirondack Mountain Club staff, who said they had never seen this many people in the backcountry. Numbers from Summit Steward counts and state trail registers show a steep overall increase in hiker traffic over the last decade.

That’s both a blessing and a curse. We, the public, must safeguard this natural treasure. It can only take so much use, especially if much of that is abuse due to novice users who don’t know any better. We need to do a better job of teaching them.

It’s time to bring back public service announcements about treating the woods with respect.

Our country used to do basic outdoor education fairly well. Remember Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl? They were part of one of the most successful PSA campaigns in American history, a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters and the Ad Council. Generations of kids grew up hearing Smokey warn, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires” and Woodsy say, “Give a hoot; don’t pollute.” Those messages reached people in the comfort of their homes, on television and radio and in newspapers and magazines. Many in this audience were not preparing to camp or hike, but it stuck in their heads anyway. If they ever went in the woods, they’d remember.

But when was the last time any of us saw or heard these mascots on television or radio, in a newspaper or magazine? Officially, this campaign is still alive, but it dropped out of the public consciousness a long time ago. How many people in their 20s or younger have heard of Woodsy and Smokey?

The federal and state governments should either team up to reintroduce these characters to a new generation or come up with a new campaign. Anything is better than what we have now, which is almost nothing.

The Adirondack Mountain Club and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation uphold the national Leave No Trace program, which is great – but it reaches very few people. They do the best they can with too few resources.

Not only are people not getting the message about outdoor ethics at home; many don’t get it when they arrive in the Adirondacks, either. A few trailheads have Leave No Trace signs, but most don’t. Forest rangers used to be more prevalent in the woods, talking to people about best practices and ticketing violators, but these days it’s unusual for a hiker to encounter a ranger unless it’s an emergency.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has spent millions of I Love New York dollars on ads urging people to come to the Adirondacks. He started Adirondack Challenge events in summer and winter, in which he leads a delegation of state lawmakers and staffers to try all kinds of wild activities up here. Amid all that, however, there’s no statewide message telling people how to behave when they get in the woods.

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