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April 22, 2012 Comments (1) Musings

Tragedy of the “Trail & Ultra” Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Sherpa John and do not necessarily reflect the official opinions or positions of any other individual(s) associated with or employees thereof. The information provided by Sherpa John is provided “As Is” and is devoid of warranties and guarantees. In reading this article, you accept that your own thoughts, beliefs and opinions may be challenged, questioned or dismissed; and the opinions expressed here may not actually be the opinion of Sherpa John himself, but a mere feeble attempt to inspire you to question your own opinions and positions; and offers a deeper insight into our Trail and Ultra Culture. Thus, an open mind is greatly appreciated and a terrible thing to waste.

“The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. ” [1]

CLICK HERE for a Video Example of what the “Tragedy of the Commons” Is
As I put down one of my more cherished books, Wilderness Ethics: Preserving the Spirit of Wilderness By Laura and Guy Waterman, I couldn’t help but think deeper as to what Guy meant when he included his editorial “Why The Lorax Lost” within the pages of his book. What idea.. what legacy.. did Guy want to leave behind? How did he want us to think, feel and act moving forward in the care of lands he deeply loved?

Guy was no stranger to adventure and alpinism in the Northeast. He helped set many of the routes in New York’s “Gunks,” Cannon Cliffs in the Whites as well as Cathedral, Whitehorse and Rumney. He was a peak-bagging god after becoming the first, and still the only, person to have ever hiked New Hampshire’s 48 Four-Thousand Foot peaks from all four points of the compass.. in winter. For someone who loved the land, used it and explored it so.. he had a knack for getting the word out about it’s preservation. The thoughts, ideals and words of Waterman closely rival those before him such as Muir and Pinchot. I asked again.. what did he mean in his article, “Why The Lorax Lost?”

So I started thinking about this idea of Tragedy of the Commons which was first put to paper in the late 1960’s and how the ideals of this theory closely relate to what Guy was trying to tell us about the Lorax. In his earnest effort to get us to think more forwardly and purposefully about environmentalism and sustainability; I personally think guy hit the head of a nail he once hit himself. My theory in all of this is that “Trophy Recreation” is a tragedy of the commons and in essence, everything Guy Waterman ended up thinking against towards his dying days.


Take peak-bagging for example. In New Hampshire, the Appalachian Mountain Club Created its own Four-Thousand-Footers Club (FTFC) back in 1957. On their website it says, “The Four Thousand Footer Club was formed in 1957 to introduce hikers to some of the less well-known sections of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. At that time, such peaks as Hancock, Owl’s Head and West Bond were trailless and practically never climbed. The problem of overuse was unknown, except in the Presidentials and Franconias.” [2]

The problem of over-use was “unknown”?! This simply was not true. The whole reason the AMC started the FTFC was because they knew of the over-use in the Presidential’s and Franconia’s and they wanted to steer hikers to some of those lesser known places in their effort to spread the crowds out. What has happened since then I am certain the “AMC Mapping Party” of 1957 never expected. In the 54 years of the FTFC, more then 10,000 people have officially completed the list. Thats just the number who have sent in their application for the “trophy”.. which is a patch and scroll. When you consider the numbers of folks who haven’t sent in their applications, it’s over 15,000 (est.) who have completed the list.

As little as 10 years ago, when one wanted to hike in Winter in the White Mountains, anywhere you went you were tasked with breaking trail. Now-a-days, the trail has almost always been broken out for you. The integration of the internet and the instant updating of trail conditions has allowed hikers by the hundreds, if not thousands, to take to the mountains in Winter in their quest to bag all the peaks in the winter season. You never break trail anymore, you’re almost never alone.. It’s a tragedy of the commons situation!

The question now remains.. some 54 years after it’s inception, how does the AMC FTFC plan to prevent over-use again? Do they have a plan? Do they have an idea? Or do they continue to advertise the quest for the trophy while hoping that numbers drop over time? How could they ignore the very premise under which their club was formed by allowing this tragedy to continue?


I can bring this to Ultra-Running too. Six years ago when I first started running Ultra’s.. there was less than 20 One-Hundred Mile Races in the country. Today there’s more than 80. People are flowing into our sport and they take take take. People want the Western States 100 to open the field to more runners even though their hands are tied. They want Hardrock to allow more runners as well. Races like Leadville went from 500 runners to 800 runners in one year! And in turn, were forced to place a cap on the field size at 750.

Ultra/Trail Runners need to be careful and as a community, we need to begin to consider ways in which we can avoid the Tragedy of the Commons. The trends are out there, it’s going to happen, and in a community where our races take place through delicate lands and often include delicate land owners.. the time is now for us to consider how we plan to give back. Many races force this into our culture by requiring runners to do 8 hours of trail work in order to even run in the race. I’ve heard many an ultra-runner complain about the trail-work requirement at various races around the country. While I understand their point of view, I’d love for them to understand the bigger picture.. that we can’t always take and at some point, you’ve got to give back or the resource will run out.

Happy Earth Day Everyone!



One Response to Tragedy of the “Trail & Ultra” Commons

  1. elizabethjayne says:

    I recently met a runner from Colorado who was lamenting the sale of the Western States for just this reason. Too many runners, too crowded, and too detrimental to our end goal of having an environment like this to run in.

    Trail maintenance as a requirement for entry is egalitarian and makes perfect sense to me. Thanks for this article!

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