Ecotourism Connects Scenery, Science : Environment: The concept is spreading through the U.S. travel industry; the trend began overseas.


Here in a rock-rimmed canyon in Oregon's high desert, tourists are developing respect for the Earth as well as admiration for its rugged beauty.

They have traveled to central Oregon with Elizabeth Davies, president of EcoTours of Oregon, who hopes to impart some knowledge and a sense of personal responsibility for the region's natural wonders.

"We try to show them there's a connection between the trees and the animals and how everything is interconnected," Davies said.

Ecotourism, combining science with scenery, is spreading through the U.S. travel industry, mostly in national parks and other natural attractions in the West.

Most such tours operate outside of the United States, teaching visitors about the rain forests of Brazil, for example, or the wildlife of Madagascar.

But the Ecotourism Society in North Bennington, Vt., claims 600 members nationwide, said executive director Megan Epler Wood.

In Oregon, Davies' tour leads through the Mt. Hood National Forest to Warm Springs Indian Reservation.

The tour traverses the Cascade Range, with the towering Douglas firs of the temperate rain forest, to eastern Oregon's high desert, lush this summer with scattered sage and mounds of blooming wildflowers.

Davies teaches visitors about the region's geology, the plants and animals that live there, and the history and culture of its people.

"My goal is to make it a turning point," she said. "Hopefully, they draw some parallels with their own lives, the foods they eat, the products they buy."

"We're activists," said Jeff Davies, Elizabeth's husband and co-founder of EcoTours. "When we have the opportunity, this is our form of activism."

When taking hikers into the forest, EcoTours teaches them about the effects of waste and "the ethics of maintaining what's nice," Jeff Davies said.

Warm Springs tribal leaders support the effort, which dovetails with their own beliefs.

"Today's life borrows the land. Our job is to manage the land for future generations. It's a living, breathing purpose," said Rudy Clemens, spokesman for the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.

"If we keep developing industrially, we're going to destroy ourselves. We need to come together and join with each other as humans to save our Earth," he told the visitors.

Jennifer Kleiner of Washington enjoyed the glimpse of Indian culture and the educational aspects of her tour.

"I'm more intrigued by the Oregon landscape than before, and I didn't think that was possible," she said. "The landscape was breathtaking."

EcoTours also offers trips to the Oregon Coast, the Columbia River Gorge and Mt. St. Helens. The company takes tourists on day hikes into Oregon's old-growth forests and out on the ocean for whale watching.

Other operators offer tours in such places as Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks, the Grand Canyon and Glacier Bay in Alaska.

The Davieses espoused the concept while on a 20-month trip around the world and came up with the idea for their Portland-based business while waiting out the rain in a tent in New Zealand.

Oregon is among the states with most to gain from the movement, tourism officials say.

"Oregon has such variety, from the southeast Oregon desert to the old-growth forests, we have a lot of potential to develop that," said Julie Curtis, assistant director of the Economic Development Department.

"I guess from a purely tourism industry standpoint it provides the economic benefits that visitors provide," Curtis said. "Going beyond that, it can raise awareness of ecological issues and bring about positive action on those issues."

The movement could help ecologically threatened areas such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, Wood said.

"The whole development of our park system relied on tourism, so the history of the alliance of tourism and conservation is very old in the United States," she said.

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