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Since the pandemic began, travelers have flocked to the tens of millions of acres of land the U.S. federal government owns in the American West. But the challenge of how to balance the influx of visitors with managing these often-fragile ecosystems remains daunting, panelists at the Skift Short-Term & Outdoor Summit said Thursday.

These lands, much of which is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, are separate from those managed by the National Park Service. They lack some of the infrastructure of Park Service-managed territories, with fewer law enforcement resources, trail markings, and restroom facilities.

Overtourism can threaten desert ecosystems and can expose sacred Indigenous sites to inadvertent (in most cases) damage. “Land managers were overwhelmed,” said Ashley Korenblat, managing director of Public Land Solutions during a session moderated by global tourism reporter Lebawit Lily Girma.

Yet, tourism, and the money it brings, is important. International travel largely is shut down, and cities have seen an exodus with the rise of remote work and as people seek to escape exposure to the virus. These twin forces are bringing more people, and money, than ever to federal land in the American West.

Indigenous Peoples want to capitalize on the trend financially but also safeguard their sacred sites and preserve their unique way of life, said Len Necefer, founder of Natives Outdoors. Tribes are “acutely concerned” about the threats posed by motorized off-road vehicles, cycling, and rock climbing to their sacred sites. “These [activities] have an impact,” he said.

Education is key, the panelists said. Visitors should seek out organizations that have experience in the particular area they want to visit. “When there is not enough law enforcement or trail markings, bad things can happen,” said Charlotte Overby, senior program manager for Conservations Lands Foundation. The organization is working to educate both landowners on how to conserve their land and stimulate tourism sustainably, and tourists on how best to enjoy the territory. “Our belief is that these places are best managed by local people who love them,” she said.

In addition to educating visitors, it’s incumbent on landowners and local organizations to design experiences that people will enjoy and will discourage unsupervised exploring, Korenblat added. These could range from simply marking trails to offering guided tours, she said. “People behave well when their expectations are met.”

The panelists called for more funding for federal agencies charged with managing land, including the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Tax revenues now earmarked for marketing should be diverted to sustainable tourism, and the travel industry should lobby Congress for more funding for these initiatives, Overby said. “This is mission critical,” Korenblat added.

Indigenous People must be part of the conversation on how to manage tourism on public lands, Necefer said. The issue of co-management, where a site is overseen both by the federal and tribal government, should be explored. This concept has proven successful in other countries, like Australia and Canada, where Indigenous Peoples are actively involved in land use and management. Tribal governments should be given greater access to resources and to credit, something Indigenous People long have had trouble getting, he noted.

“We can manage these places better with the folks that have been doing it for a few thousand years,” Necefer said.

Photo Credit: Moab, Utah is among the places seeing an influx of visitors during the pandemic. Andrey Grinkevich / Unsplash