Week of 4/16/2006

Dear EarthTalk: I hear a lot about "eco-travel" and "green tourism" in far-away exotic places, but don’t we have some environmentally-friendly vacation spots right here in the U.S. and Canada?

—Paul Howe, San Francisco, CA

While it is true that tour operators in other countries play up their green-friendly itineraries, there is no shortage of eco-travel options right here at home. Eco-travel is alive and well in North America, too.

Not to be confused with "adventure travel," which may take one to wild places but which may also do harm to them, genuine "eco-tourism"—according to the United Nations—must satisfy several criteria that speak to both the enjoyment of the traveler and the well being of the host community. For the traveler, eco-tourism’s main motivation should be the observation and appreciation of both the local ecology and the local culture, and it should contain "educational and interpretation features." And to truly benefit the host community it should be organized for small groups by local businesses, it should minimize impact on both the natural and cultural environment, and it should generate income for the host community and increase awareness of the need for conserving its natural and cultural assets.

According to Natural Home and Garden magazine, top U.S. eco-travel choices that live up to these guidelines include: the El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa in Taos, New Mexico; Inn Serendipity Bed & Breakfast in Browntown, Wisconsin; Papoose Creek Lodge in Cameron, Montana; the Sadie Cove Wilderness Lodge in Homer, Alaska; and any of the options available within Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. In Canada, the magazine named the Cree Village Eco-Lodge on Moose Factory Island, Ontario; Forest House Eco-Lodge in Air Ronge, Saskatchewan; and Wilderness Outpost at Bedwell River in Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia as its top picks.

For those looking to go a little farther afield, Maho Bay Camps and the affiliated Concordia Ecotents on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands is a well-known green hotspot. These primitive lodges provide guests with treehouse-like platform tents tucked into a rainforest canopy overlooking the Caribbean. The minimal impact accommodations and other lodge facilities are linked together via a series of intricate and environmentally-friendly boardwalks, some of which deposit hikers onto trails in Virgin Islands National Park while others make a bee-line down to the beach where surf and sand abound.

Meanwhile, a sultrier option might be any of the tours and lodges available through the Hawaii Ecotourism Association, which provides a free online clearinghouse of pre-vetted eco-travel trips and accommodations.

For more information on how to judge the eco-friendliness of any lodge or tour one needs only to look online. The website of the International Ecotourism Society lists its criteria for judging a given operation’s sustainability, and Sustainable Travel International (STI) goes so far as to certify lodges and tour operators who run environmentally responsible trips. STI also provides ideas for travelers to keep in mind in order to keep their impact as minimal as possible. Conservation International does the same, providing tips on traveling conscientiously on a special website devoted to eco-tourism.

CONTACTS: International Ecotourism Society, www.Ecotourism.org; Sustainable Travel International, www.SustainableTravel.com; Conservation International Ecotourism, www.EcoTour.org.

Dear EarthTalk: It seems like the Amazon rainforest is not in the news nearly as much as it used to be. Have the environmental problems there been resolved?

—Justin Tucker, Oakland, CA

Just because the Amazon is not in the headlines today as much as when the media first covered its widespread destruction in the 1980s does not mean that environmental problems there have been solved. In fact, the non-profit Rainforest Action Network (RAN) estimates that more than 20 percent of the original rainforest is already gone and that, without stricter environmental laws and more sustainable development practices, as much as half of what remains could disappear within a few decades.

Researchers like Britaldo Soares-Filho of Brazil’s Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) concur with such findings. Soares-Filho and his team of international researchers recently reported in the journal Nature that, without further protections more than 770,000 additional square miles of Amazon rainforest would be lost, and at least 100 native species would be profoundly threatened by the resulting loss in habitat.

One of the driving forces behind the destruction is the poverty in the region. Looking for ways to make ends meet, poor inhabitants clear tracts of rainforest for its timber value, often with government permission, and then further despoil the cleared land through destructive farming and ranching practices. And in some cases corporate conglomerates such as Mitsubishi, Georgia Pacific and Unocal are underwriting the conversion of Amazon rainforest into corporate-sponsored farms and ranches.

In an effort to provide solutions, Soares-Filho and his associates plotted different scenarios to show how policy changes could have dramatic effects across the vast Amazon River basin. "For the first time," he told reporters, "we can examine how individual policies ranging from the paving of highways to the requirement for forest reserves on private properties" could determine the future of the Amazon.

With new checks in place, UFMG researchers believe that nearly 75 percent of the original forest could be saved by 2050. They also point out that, since trees absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, industrialized countries like the U.S. should have a keen interest in forest protection so as to combat global warming.

Stemming the tide of destruction in the Amazon is a complicated task, but some concerned government officials, international policy makers and environmentalists are making strides. Groups like RAN and the like-minded Rainforest Alliance have mobilized thousands of activists around the world to put pressure on corporations and governments in the region (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela all have Amazonian regions) to clean up their acts. Only if they do will we preserve the rainforest for its own sake as well as for its important contribution to medicine and other applications.

Meanwhile, Brazil recently announced plans to expand protections of its portion of the Amazon, telling reporters in March that it would declare 84,000 square miles of the rainforest a protected area within the next three years. But whether leaders there have the clout to enforce such protections remains to be seen.

CONTACTS: Rainforest Action Network, www.ran.org; Rainforest Alliance, www.rainforest-alliance.org.