The San Juan Ski and Conservation Association was formed in order to further conservation efforts within the San Juan National Forest. To do this, we have worked to bring this beautiful place into the public eye, encouraging visitation, tourism, and general knowledge. But how big a role does tourism play in conservation? Is it worth putting time and resources into encouraging tourism in this part of the country?

In a word: Yes.

Let’s start with the facts. Globally, tourism currently contributes about 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Much of this impact (between 50% and 98%) arises from the travel component itself—primarily via plane or car. The remainder is derived from on-site impacts associated with accommodation and leisure activities. If that sounds like a large contribution, you’re right; a 5% contribution is very significant.

But let’s take a step back to define conservation. Conservation is the act of preserving or protecting the environment, natural resources, and biodiversity. Often, locations with underdeveloped economies may struggle with conservation because resources are limited, leading the local population to potentially exploit natural areas to make ends meet. Though understandable, this type of resource reliance can have dangerous consequences for the long-term viability of ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.

We’re not trying to say that southern Colorado is underdeveloped, but this part of the state does have significantly less development than the northern half. If the San Juan National Forest were not protected, industry in this area might rely on logging or some other environmentally exploitive practice. Instead, the communities in and around the San Juan National Forest rely on the tourism industry to make a living rather than chopping down and selling away previous resources.

Eco-tourism, especially to San Juan National Forest, can also catalyze knowledge and understanding. We do what we can to educate visitors about the fragile and complex ecosystems that comprise this massive forest. Only through first-hand experience and appreciation can visitors truly understand the importance of conservation. This is what we aim to do.

The trick to environmentally conscious tourism is to carefully plan every step of the vacation. If you’re traveling to Colorado, try booking an Amtrak ticket instead of a flight. If you’re renting a car, opt for a Prius. If you’re visiting in the summertime, rent a bicycle as your primary mode of transportation. Vacationers can cut down on their individual carbon contributions through small acts. Don’t let the tourism industry’s contribution to climate change affect your decision to vacation in San Juan; instead, let it inform your planning.