Easy on the Earth Travel

Photo by James Kaiser

On a warm and welcoming summer morning, our group loaded into a pair of waiting vans at the Red Lion in Lewiston, Idaho, and with rafts in tow we left for the river. After months of anticipation we would finally put paddles in the water that day and begin an adventure of a lifetime—a 4-day whitewater-rafting excursion with O.A.R.S. (oars.com), through the rugged and remote gorges of the Lower Salmon River. But first, and after only about 15 minutes of driving, we stopped at the Nez Perce National Historical Park Visitor Center.

We watched a poignant and visually striking video about the Nez Perce, their history, and their relationship to the land that we were about to call home for the next several days. It was, dare I say, riveting. We then walked around on our own to inspect the interpretive displays and converse with staff.

Were we chomping at the bit to hit our first set of class III rapids? Sure. Were we also grateful for time spent at a stop that helped add context, perspective and another layer of depth to the trip? Absolutely.

That was what we signed up for and something that is part and parcel to a way of traveling that has been gaining in popularity: ecotourism.

It’s a term that you have probably happened upon in recent years. In fact, it’s quite possible that knowingly or not, you’ve experienced or participated in it. According to the International Ecotourism Society, the concept is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people and involves interpretation and education.” Quite succinct. But ecotourism is a bit broader than the word itself might indicate, going well beyond environmentally friendly notions like waste reduction and recycling. In addition to a primary focus on visiting remote natural areas, other aspects include direct financial aid for conservation as well as local inhabitants, a respect for native culture and human rights support.

Before it even had a name, O.A.R.S. was pioneering the framework of what many might now label as sustainable travel or ecotourism. For example, in 1998 a rafting company, with the support of O.A.R.S., began offering trips on the remote Upper Navua in Fiji. Along with help from nine local clans, two villages, a government agency and a logging company, the Upper Navua Conservation Area was established. The partnership has been responsible for both long-term protection of the river and more than $1 million for indigenous communities.

By the time our third day was nearing its end on the Lower Salmon, we had learned about the geology and formation of the canyons as well as the last 10,000 years of human history that have filled them. We witnessed wildlife and wild places that probably don’t look much different than they did hundreds or even thousands of years ago. And to keep it that way we practiced the principles of Leave No Trace. We learned how to eat, drink, sleep, play and even practice hygiene in a way that minimized the impact we had on our surroundings. We also happened to run adrenaline-inducing whitewater, eat mouth-watering meals and made memories with new friends under ancient stars. Those moments will stay with me the rest of my days. The trip was everything I was hoping for and then some.

Ecotourism is more than just sustainably adventuring in remote locales, however. It’s also the places you stay. Case in point: Along a particularly scenic stretch of Oregon’s untamed southern coast, you’ll find the small town of Port Orford. Above the town and among the trees looking down on it all is where you’ll find WildSpring Guest Habitat (wildspring.com). Comprised of five cabins, the Guest Hall where breakfast is served, and a hot tub, WildSpring is a place that embodies the ecotourism ethos, while simultaneously proving that sacrifices to comfort aren’t necessary to do so. The guest cabins integrate seamlessly into a surrounding forest accented by native vegetation and local art. Only two trees were removed during the construction process. And even though the cabins possess a laundry list of traits making them environmentally friendly, each one feels luxurious.

They donate and collaborate. They recycle, repurpose, reduce and reuse. The lengths to which WildSpring goes and the measures they take are too long to list here but know that it all culminates in a remarkable net zero carbon footprint. And, at the risk of sounding a
little too much like a hippie, the place just feels right. As if good energy flows from the
hills, through the grounds and out to the ocean. But I’m going to write that off to the comfortable bed, red wine, a hot tub overlooking the Pacific and a killer breakfast frittata.

As an industry, however, ecotourism is not without its detractors, due in large part to the fact that regulation and accreditation is still somewhat loose. In addition, the act of “greenwashing,” or deceptively veiling something as environmentally friendly when it isn’t, is a real problem for those that are attempting to legitimately toe the line. There are also some who will make the argument that travel, in general, is inherently damaging to the environment, especially when you factor in things like air travel or wasteful accommodations. So just how eco-friendly is your eco-tour or your eco-friendly lodging?

Admittedly, everybody’s bar for what truly qualifies is going be set differently, so a bit of homework might be required. One surefire way to offset your travel footprint is by taking non-motorized trips like rafting or backpacking. Granted, you still must get to your starting point somehow, but in lieu of eliminating travel altogether, those are some significant steps. Also, by exploring your own locality or region and staying at places that have taken proven measures to reduce their footprint, or are perhaps even carbon neutral, you can immediately mitigate some of those concerns.

Not every place you stay is going to have as many eco-friendly kudos and cookies as WildSpring. And sussing out which accreditations are truly meaningful can be difficult. Known entities are a good place to start. For example, TripAdvisor has a GreenLeaders Program that partners with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Energy Star and the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). Just look for the GreenLeaders badge on a hotel listing page. If you click on it, you can see the property’s green practices. And speaking of the USGBC, if you’re looking for a hotel or resort, their LEED certification is perhaps the most recognized and trusted badge of honor in the industry. LEED, standing for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, has categories ranging from simply “Certified,” up through the ranks of “Silver” and “Gold,” and further up to the top-tiered “Platinum.” If you’re spending time in a place that has attained one these designations you can rest assured that, in one way or another, their eco-friendly aspirations and practices ring true. And not surprisingly, the Northwest is home to several LEED-certified lodging facilities, resorts and even wineries, including some brands you might know.

A quick look at the list reveals that the Element Hotel in Bozeman, Montana, and the TownePlace Suites in Anchorage, Alaska, are certified LEED. The Limelight Hotel in Ketchum, Idaho, just recently earned Silver status, as did the Hyatt at Olive 8 in Seattle. And the Parq Vancouver in British Columbia as well as Oregon wine country’s Allison Inn and Spa both hold Gold honors. But it’s not just resorts. Sokol Blosser is the first LEED-certified winery in the U.S. Since then, Stoller Vineyards has earned its certification and Torri Mor Winery has attained Gold.

When it’s firing on all cylinders, ecotourism is adventure, cultural understanding, natural beauty, history, preservation of resources and kinship with kindred spirits. At its best, it can be a confluence of all these things that also ties into something larger that more and more of us are looking for—personal growth through socially responsible and environmentally sustainable travel. It’s finding more meaning in your journey, hoping that others will too, and helping to ensure that those following us will be able to do so long after we did. And for my money, there’s no better way to travel.