Memoirs of a Permit Applicant

Reflections on the ethics of wilderness business

By Morgan Hite

In the winter of 1997 I was working as an administrator at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and one of my tasks was to apply for a permit to run a canoeing course in the Northwest Territories. While this little job may have seemed to be a romantic dream come true - pouring over the maps, dreaming up ways to go by water from Great Slave to the Arctic Ocean - the permit process was one of my least favourite jobs. The application process itself was simple: proof of our liability insurance, the names and addresses of the NOLS directors, etc. What was at the centre of my unease was a fear that I would have to go to Yellowknife or Fort Smith and meet with First Nations groups - the aboriginal Dene who live on the land - and answer their questions. "What is this you want to do on our land?" "Why here?" "Why should we let you come here?" "What is in it for us?"

I like the poetic reflection that, like the white explorers crossing Canada two hundred years ago, I would have to sell my First Nations hosts on the idea of our trip. But on a practical level this question session was my biggest nightmare. I feared my job would be to justify our presence to people who did not want us. No longer, as in my youth, is the wilderness simply the big empty place beyond civilisation. Now, and the Northwest Territories are an excellent example, wilderness is carved up into domains with stakeholders, and you must argue your way in. It's the arguing part that seems wrong.

When NOLS first came to northern British Columbia, we had faced a similar situation: local hunting guides were opposed to our presence. Here I first experienced "arguing" as we answered all of their questions, justifying our presence by saying we were responsible wilderness citizens, practised minimum impact camping, and took an educational approach. Yet our arguments, while true, rang hollow because they did not address the fundamental issue: we represented a different way of looking at the backcountry. These guides probably knew that, fifty years before, big game hunting had replaced fur trapping as the centre-stage economic use of that area, and that the trappers in their time had edged out the First Nations people. In our urban, check-out-that-sunset (possibly anti-hunting?) culture these guides had seen their nemesis: the looming shadow of eco-tourism.

There is also a subtle but important difference between explaining your operation and arguing. The first means going to the existing stakeholders (who may be other commercial operators in the area, or simply people who live there) and answering their questions with the expectation that this detailed information about what you propose will make them more comfortable. The latter means answering their questions in a non-threatening manner, yet with the intent to remain in the larger process (of trying to get permission to use the area) until the local stakeholders figure they can no longer get rid of you. In the first your continued presence is actually on the table; in the latter you've already decide you're going to stay. One approach is, in my mind, principled; the other is not. I wasn't sure which one we were doing. No one talked about us maybe leaving if we weren't welcome.

Although I prefer eco-tourism to big game hunting, I had sympathised with the uncomfortable position of these guides. I was excited for this operation to succeed, dying to be a part of it, yet ashamed at what we were doing.

Similarly, in the NWT situation, I was prepared for the existing "users" (a term I dislike) to oppose our permit simply because we were unfamiliar. It seemed likely. In fact, it seemed that everywhere I turned, there were people who did not want us up there. Even some diamond prospectors, the latest arrivals in the NWT, wanted to see the tundra protected from being overrun by modern, minimum-impact, commercial canoeists from Down South. They took this position not because they were afraid of limits that might be placed on mining, but because they lived themselves all summer in tents out on the tundra, and they felt an allegiance to it. One geologist who lived near our office surprised me by relating that a colleague in the NWT had said, "Those canoe trippers don't really appreciate the land." I realised that one day, faced with further newcomers to the NWT, I too might believe I was the first person who had ever held the place truly in my heart.

Pressure from our parent organization in the United States also was part of my apprehension. I could imagine them saying "You did what?" if we telegraphed down that we had foregone the NWT route because the local people did not want us. "Are you just giving up?" they would say incredulously. You never give up might be the unwritten rule of this school. "Can't you get to know them? I'm sure that once they understand what we do they'll be OK with it." In other words, apply pressure by not going away, by not doing what they want. Stay there and vote with your feet, so to speak.

My local boss was also a factor. He was excited about our new program's success, and he would want to "explore all avenues" before conceding defeat. I also sensed that because he himself was a naturally friendly and sensitive person, he might not perceive us as being pushy. Yet the other stakeholders might. Which was true?

My personal angst over not being wanted (and not wanting to push it) translated into a thought that my company - and hence all companies - need to act with integrity in these situations. It is an issue because even when we as individuals are sensitive people, the "business" culture of commercial tripping suggests that it is acceptable to be insensitive.

Yet such behaviour brings the ugly non-ethic of competitive commerce into the beautiful round of wilderness. If wilderness says "give each person his or her space," then how can we fight to be allowed into another's wilderness space? With that attitude, our bodies can be in the heart of the Thelon Game Sanctuary but our minds might be in a corporate boardroom. Has anyone considered that this may be worse than being a mining company?

My point is that the way companies approach existing stakeholders and the permit process is an important test of what we have learned from wilderness travel. Imagine the permit is like a campsite. If someone else has the campsite, do we move in to take it away from them? If we have a remote, isolated campsite and another party appears in the area, although we are disappointed do we try to keep them from camping in the area? In both cases, ethics say No. If we arrive at a place where another group is already camped, what do we do if they politely make it clear that they would like to remain alone? Ethics say we respect their wishes and move on.

Imagine if wilderness tripping permits were reviewed on a similar basis. First, of course, we would disqualify all applicants with histories of mistreating the land: leaving trash behind, starting fires, etc. But we would then ask: which organisations behave in the front-country the way we would like to see them behave in the wilderness? Are they respectful of and helpful to other backcountry stakeholders, or do their actions suggest every-man-for-himself? Are they sensitive to the concerns of private trippers or do they discount them?

I suspect this approach would disqualify NOLS, which has aggressively proclaimed itself the "Leader in Wilderness Education," conducted a media campaign to raise its profile above that of other outdoor schools and opposed efforts by private trippers to reduce commercial group sizes. These actions all indicate that NOLS thinks its operation in the wilderness is somehow better or more important than others.

In the end I did not have to go to the NWT to meet with local residents. A provisional one-time permit was granted without me having to step beyond my office or my ethical comfort zone. Consultations with local stakeholders were put off until after that permit should be used. It was a diplomatic solution acceptable to all.

I was relieved, the way you are relieved when you get to the campsite you want and no one else is there. But I was also sad. Why did the permit process not include an assessment of whether the applicant was a model, unselfish citizen in the community of backcountry tripping? Wilderness travel is about more than getting to a remote place and getting back. It is about how one gets there, and how one acts - not only in the wilderness but back in society. If a company can't show the tell-tale signs of having been in the wilderness, maybe wilderness travel isn't really what they are selling.

 © Copyright 1997, Morgan Hite