As tempting as it can be to let it all hang loose and stop worrying while on vacation, you do want to be cognizant of your ecological impact. Without a little planning, you may be unaware of specific environmental and social issues in a given location --- a swath of critical habitat for an endangered species, for example, or the exploitation of a given group of people. You are also inherently reliant on transportation that may be better or worse in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions. The byword for the eco-savvy traveler is awareness.
Choose ecologically friendly modes of transportation. This means lessening or eliminating your dependence on travel options that incur heavy carbon footprints. Airplanes and cars contribute significant amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Walk or bicycle as much as possible --- a good method of immersing yourself in your destination. Investigate public transportation options and their specific emissions profiles: Electric trains and biodiesel buses are examples of more efficient and cleaner means of mechanized travel. (See References 1, pp. 16--19)
Investigate businesses you may be patronizing on your trip to find out their practices and reputations. Ask the company directly what they do for the local community and how they run their operations. Some may contribute little economically to the area or they may even engage in ecologically damaging practices, like fuel-costly tours or excessive harassment of wildlife in the name of sightseeing. Organizations like the International Ecotourism Society offer resources for connecting with businesses that engage in sustainable practices.
Buy locally. This simple practice can have enormous positive implications, both ecologically and economically. Import of food and other goods from outside the region demands a lot of energy in the form of transportation and processing, so a seemingly innocuous ingredient or a souvenir might come with a major carbon price tag (see References 2). Choosing foods that are regionally in-season and locally produced mitigates some of this environmental cost and helps support local farmers and manufacturers (see References 4).
Tread lightly on the landscape. When visiting a wild area, don't drive or bicycle off designated routes, and hike only where allowed and on terrain you deem resilient, avoiding fragile places like wetland edges, alpine tundra or stretches of exposed soil. If camping, pack up all garbage or dispose of it in designated receptacles, and limit the use of soap to biodegradable varieties used in campground sinks. In the backcountry, stay at official campsites; if dispersed camping is permitted, use preexisting camps whenever possible to lessen erosion. (See References 3)
Ethan Schowalter-Hay is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written for the "Observer," the Bureau of Land Management and various online publishers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.
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