Disappearing wilderness concerns tour organizer

November 11, 1990|By John Rasmus | John Rasmus,Universal Press Syndicate

Ten years ago, adventure travel still was in its "expeditionary phase," and Richard Bangs was working the frontier harder and better than anyone.

White-water raft trips were the hot adventure trip of the time, and Mr. Bangs was the world's leading purveyor of white water. He had a knack for cooking up high-adrenalin "first descents" of obscure and often dangerous wilderness rivers, and in the late '70s and early '80s there seemed to be plenty of those to go around. Every season, Mr. Bangs and his company, Sobek Expeditions, seemed to come up with new ones: the Bio-Bio in Chile, the Zambezi in Africa, the Tatshenshini in Canada. On their list for the future were lots more around the world: the Watut, the Alas, the Choruh, the Chatkal.

I followed his exploits from a fairly safe distance, editing a magazine, Outside, that was exploring those same frontiers on its pages. There was something heady about what Sobek and others in the business were up to: Suddenly, because of affordable air travel and improved ground transportation in the developing countries, just about every last nook and cranny on the planet was open to people who wanted to explore the world's vast remaining wilderness areas.

I went on a Sobek trip down the Bio-Bio River in southern Chile in 1982, just a six-hour flight from Miami and a comfortable overnight train ride into the Andes. Billed as one of the world's best two or three river trips, the Bio-Bio wound along steep canyons, dormant volcanoes and hot springs before tumbling into a series of cold, clear white-water rapids. Our guides told us that the Chilean government was thinking of damming the river for hydroelectric power someday, but out on the river the notion seemed a little abstract. Our attention was on rapids with names like One-Eyed Jack and Lava South.

Today, as I finish my tenure at Outside and my time as an adventure travel columnist, it seems that this frontier era has all but ended and that adventure travel has entered what might be called the stewardship phase. The changes coming up for Mr. Bangs and Sobek seem as good a barometer as any for the future of all adventure travel.

I had dinner with Mr. Bangs recently near his offices in Oakland, Calif., and he told me that for the most part he's left the white-water exploratory game. It turns out that not only the Bio-Bio but several of the rivers he pioneered -- the Zambezi in Zambia, the Coruh in Turkey, the Pacaure in Costa Rica -- have been or will be dammed for hydroelectric power. The dam on the Bio-Bio will be finished next April, hard by One-Eyed Jack, and next spring will be the last season for commercial trips there.

Meanwhile, there just aren't a lot more new, runnable rivers out there to be explored. Mr. Bangs, who has pored over every blank spot on the map from pole to pole, should know. He came up with the list, and he's checked off all the items on it. Great white-water rivers turned out to be in shorter supply than anyone thought.

"It's not a good time to base your future on wild rivers overseas," he says sadly.

Mr. Bangs' experience over the last decade applies not only to rivers but to international wilderness from the rain forests of Sumatra to the hills of Africa: Natural resources and wilderness areas in the developing countries are being converted into electric power, timber and cash at an accelerating rate. Undammed rivers and virgin forests are, by definition, an exception to the rule of global resource development. Real wilderness, more and more, is a thing of the past, a pleasant illusion.

Perhaps the best evidence that the pioneer days are over and that the stewardship era has arrived is that travelers and adventure companies are stepping up their efforts to protect what remains. This fall Mr. Bangs is embarking on a six-city tour in the Northeast with the Sierra Club to bring attention to the imminent danger to eight of the world's great rivers. Meanwhile, Sobek and other companies are promoting "ecotours."

Ecotourism, in the broadest sense, is the idea that enlightened travelers can be a force for preservation. Tourist dollars can help save the elephants of Kenya, the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and the rain forests of Costa Rica simply by giving the home countries an economic incentive to preserve their natural heritage. In many cases, there is no other incentive for preservation. Many of the new eco-adventures have significant elements of education and fund raising involved: Environmental experts go along on the trips to lecture, and part of the proceeds are donated to relevant preservation groups.

Mr. Bangs, while supportive of the concept, isn't entirely convinced that these new tours have more appeal than traditional adventure tours. Of course, in many cases -- high-revenue projects such as hydro-electric plants or tropical forest lumbering, for instance -- ecotourism isn't enough. Many of the world's great whitewater rivers and hardwood forests undoubtedly are lost for good.

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