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Time to revive ads about outdoor ethics

September 22, 2016
Editorial , Lake Placid News

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 a blessing and a curse. 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 on television and radio and in newspapers and magazines.

When was the last time we 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.

The federal and state governments should either team up to reintroduce these characters to a new generation or come up with a new campaign.

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 few people. They do the best they can with 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. The state cut DEC's staff during the recession and never brought it back to where it needs to be. Also, forest rangers often don't go into the woods on busy days because they need to respond at a moment's notice to the vast number of rescue calls seen now, when hikers are so quick to call 911 on their cellphones.

Summit Stewards on a handful of the most popular peaks say they're often the first ones to give novice hikers basic advice like "Bring a map," "Wear boots, not sandals," and "Bring enough water and food." By then, it's too late for that trip.

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.

It wouldn't be expensive. The old U.S. Forest Service ads were PSAs; the media ran them free of charge. We still would. They could also be all over websites, apps and social media.

Similarly, the entertainment industry misses easy opportunities to set good examples. NBC's reality show "Running Wild with Bear Grylls" brought retired basketball superstar Shaquille O'Neal to the Adirondacks for an outdoor adventure, but it didn't show its millions of viewers how to behave in the woods to keep them wild. Smokey would been unhappy with Mr. Grylls and Mr. O'Neal for not dousing their campfire.

Making this a teachable moment would have been a layup for a charismatic giant like Shaq.

In the 1950s, the Ad Council sponsored a series of radio commercials in which celebrities such as Bing Crosby and Roy Rogers chatted with Smokey Bear about fire safety. You can still listen to them online. One seems particularly poignant to us now. It features Dinah Shore.

Smokey, voiced by a husky-voiced actor, opens the conversation bluntly: "Miss Dinah, you keep telling folks to 'see the USA.' How about telling 'em to be careful with matches and smokes while they're doing it?"

How about it, Shaq? Bear Grylls? NBC? Gov. Cuomo? While you're spreading the word about Adirondack adventures, how about telling people to Leave No Trace while they're here? It wouldn't cost anything, and it sure would help one of the nation's last great wild places stay that way.



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