To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part. - Aldo Leopold
We were voted Best Outdoor Town Ever. Twice.
Before anyone else, we were Gig City.
These two sides of Chattanooga — outdoors and technology — will only increase in appeal. Each week, people move to Chattanooga for our outdoor scene. And technology? Please. It's only just begun.
Now, look down the road.
In 10 years. In 20 years. Will we be a city of 300,000? A county of 700,000? What will our natural landscape look like? How will people access it? And with what technology?
"How do you build an infrastructure and ecosystem that promote tourism and well-being in a way that is sustainable?" asked Fynn Glover.
Tim Williams' RootsRated essayView
In 2012, Glover, 29, and Mark McKnight, 35, created RootsRated Media — an online library of the best outdoor experiences in a particular city. It is the digital version of the bearded, grizzled, outdoor veteran who presides over all the secret spots in town.
Travel to Telluride, Colo., say, and RootsRated can tell you the best place to mountain bike. Going to St. Louis? Santa Barbara? Dozens of other U.S. cities? Through its phone app, webpage, podcasts and inbox notifications, RootsRated gives you the best places to bike, paddle, swim, run, snowshoe, fish and more.
For Chattanooga, RootsRated has more than 160 reviews "curated" from outdoors writers about everything from trails in Soddy-Daisy to climbing routes in Suck Creek Canyon, making large amounts of natural knowledge accessible to anyone. Instantly.
Is that always good?
Do all wilderness places need publicizing?
Are increasing numbers of people always a positive thing?
Since the emergence of RootsRated and similar platforms (Outdoor Project, Outbound Collective, even simple Google searches), a group of detractors has challenged the ethics of such models.
Treasure shouldn't come easily.
"Thoreau, Emerson, Leopold, Muir, Abbey all would be turning over in their graves at this," said Tim Williams.
Williams, 49, is an elder within our outdoor community. A history teacher and longtime leader of Baylor School's outdoor program Walkabout, he recently wrote an essay challenging RootsRated.
"With a mission statement to make obscure areas easier to find and a mobile app that reaches the masses instantly, RootsRated wields a power that can trump decades of thoughtful and measured stewardship with the click of a button," he wrote.
Most wilderness areas don't have the resources to handle a spike in traffic, which often happens after a RootsRated post. Williams tells stories of delicate wilderness areas suddenly swamped with people; of jammed parking lots; of hammocks swinging above Sunset Rock, a sensitive place forged from years of diplomatic work among climbers, park rangers and residents.
"RootsRated put forty years of work and cooperation between users and the [National] Park Service at risk with a single post," he writes.
And it is hard to love, cherish and respect land when you access it instantly, easily, digitally.
"There is an important filter that comes from having to work hard to find a magical place," Williams said. "Eliminating that work eliminates the spiritual experience of discovery in wilderness. Eliminating that filter in all wilderness is short-sighted and irresponsible."
We disagree, say McKnight and Glover.
"There is a sentiment that the best places should be secret," McKnight said. "We think these are the jewels in our public legacy. These are protected places and are there for everyone, and we're not backing down on that. More people need to go see them and have their lives changed."
They see RootsRated as medicine — we in America are overweight, anxious and wilderness-deprived; thus RootsRated tries to demystify going outdoors with adventure-in-your-inbox ease.
"We need to go create solitude and struggle and learn what it means to be human and deal with those mysteries. There are very few places where that can occur as successfully as it does in the wild," Glover said.
Knowledge flows differently in the digital age; I've heard stories of old-schoolers who would punch your nose before letting you publish secret climbing routes. Now the routes are a few keystrokes away.
And that's a good thing, RootsRated believes. Stronger participation begets stronger conservation.
To Williams, that's a slippery slope. RootsRated, with $1.5 million in 2016 earnings and projected growth toward $10 million, has a business model that depends on new content; sooner or later, either all the secret spots are revealed, or content runs out. (What if a similar platform emerged for the Best Hunting Spots in Chattanooga?)
This is not some soap opera. Williams, Glover and McKnight are not enemies. To think that is to miss the larger point.
In the 21st century, how do we approach our wild and precious places? In a time of instant access, how do we also honor the slow-growth process of discovery?
In an age of ecological crisis, how do we love the land around us?
"Responsibly," said Williams.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.