Is sustainable outdoor recreation possible?

Professor and backcountry ski guide Brennan Lagasse explores the conflicts between outdoor recreation and sustainability, providing tips for getting outside as an environmental advocate

Is sustainable outdoor recreation possible?

Professor and backcountry ski guide Brennan Lagasse explores the conflicts between outdoor recreation and sustainability, providing tips for getting outside as an environmental advocate

Brennan Lagasse is a teaching assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe. He teaches courses across departments and programs through a holistic approach grounded in sustainability education. In Fall 2024, he will be teaching the Sociology of Climate Change as part of the semester-long Sustainability Certificate program.

Beyond his role as a teaching assistant professor, Lagasse is also a backcountry ski guide having led and been a part of numerous international expeditions, as well as a published writer and photographer. He works with several outdoor companies as an athlete and is proud to be an ambassador with organizations such as Protect Our Winters and the Winter Wildlands Alliance.

Local to his home, Lagasse works closely with members of the Washoe Tribe through The Washoe Cultural and Outdoor Expedition Program, and the Washiw Zulshish Gum T’anu (Washoe Warrior Society). He also partners with Neets’aii Gwich’in and Inupiat Elders in Alaska each year, commonly acting as a bridge for interested students, to learn traditional ecological knowledge while experiencing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

As an avid outdoor enthusiast and athlete, Lagasse has had to confront the complexities of outdoor recreation and its impacts on the environment. Below he answers the question, can you recreate sustainably?

What are the conflicts between outdoor recreation and sustainability?

I feel that users ultimately want to be better, more informed advocates. There are a lot of good conversations happening around access and enjoying the outdoors while recognizing what impacts there might be on the environment.

I recreate sustainably by primarily being a human-powered athlete. I prefer climbing up mountains and skiing down them with my own power. I also enjoy rock climbing, biking, and paddle sports like surfing and swimming on the lake. But there are quite a few conflicts in the outdoor world around use and how to go about recreating sustainably.

"To me, being outside is my energy source – it's what I plug into every day."

I've looked at my own footprint quite a bit and have been intentional about the choices I make when enjoying the outdoors, but even though I am primarily a backcountry skier, more often than not, I need to drive to the trailhead. I can ski from my house, which is great, but it's not an everyday thing. It’s also important to understand that motorized transportation to trailheads is common for most, and various activities that are motorized can really support a community's capability and accessibility to get into the backcountry or to get outdoors in general.

There’s an imperfect advocacy that exists. It's up to us as outdoor-minded people to recognize impacts and understand how that lands in the present, but also that the future doesn't have to be fossil fuel-based as it is today. It doesn't have to be that our transportation and most everything we use to recreate comes from fossil fuels. It’s going to take a while, but there is so much vibrant work happening right now to change that, especially all the work centered around just transitions.

What are things people who want to enjoy the outdoors sustainably should think about as they plan an adventure outside?

Educate yourself and try to use transportation, gear, and whatever else is needed for the chosen activity with as low of a carbon footprint as possible. When that’s not available, practice leave no trace ethics and try to avoid highly trafficked and over-used areas. It’s important to recognize our individual footprints, but it’s the systemic changes that will create the biggest shifts in the end. It is also great to look at groups that can help guide us all towards more responsible, inclusive, sustainable recreation such as the organizations connected to the Outdoor Alliance, Native Outdoors, and Protect Our Winters for example.

How do you think getting outside into nature has influenced you and your perspective on environmental stewardship and sustainability?

I think getting outside is medicine. I think it's inspiration. I think it fosters creativity and action. And I think it's crucial for all.

I'm a direct result of having spent time outside at a young age feeling really energized by it and just being so enthralled by it all. As I got older and learned about the various issues of the world, the care and concern I have for the environment and community came from spending time in the outdoors. Being outside and experiencing the outdoors is a direct way to understand that we’re all connected and a part of everything. There's a way to engage meaningfully each day with being outside and to advocate for the places that you love.

Brennan Lagasse on skis as a child
Brennan Lagasse on skis as a child with his mother following close behind. Photo courtesy of Lagasse.

What if someone can’t get into the backcountry to go skiing? How might they engage with nature and get the same benefits?

I think it's cool to think about the least amount of equipment or other inputs that you need to get outside. Less is better, but of course, there's a high entry to skiing, for example. But if you have a pair of shoes, you can go for a walk or hike, and if you're not able to move in that way, there are ADA-accessible trails that we have that allow great access to Lake Tahoe. It’s also really important to get out with other knowledgeable people if possible, whether that’s hiring a guide or taking a local outdoor education class. Becoming familiar with place, and the craft of responsible use as an outdoor lover is crucial to a long-term relationship with adventure through nature.

To me, being outside is my energy source – it's what I plug into every day. That could be something like a simple walk for some or it could be many, many hours out in the backcountry to others. Around here, people should know that if they can just get to the lake, they're doing it right. In Tahoe, every day is a gift to be outside and embrace the current conditions. With that mindset, there are plenty of ways to get outside and get an energy boost.

We don't want gatekeepers in the backcountry. We don't need that. We need to be accessible, inclusive and sustainable. But we also need to respect how much action there is these days in sensitive areas, such as local areas like Emerald Bay, that a lot of people gravitate toward. We should do our best to limit and dissipate our impact as much as possible so future generations are able to experience what we are so fortunate to live today.

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