Heather Hansen and Kimberly Lisagor’s new book Disappearing Places: 37 Places in Peril and What Can Be Done to Help Save Them takes an in-depth look at the environmental hazards facing tourist destinations across the world, from Yellowstone to Machu Picchu to the Congo Basin. Hansen, the Boulder-based half of the duo, grew up in New York and after graduating from Mount Holyoke College, worked at the Sunday Independent in Johannesburg, South Africa. “I’d studied apartheid in college and had a great desire to see how South Africa was adjusting to democratic rule,” she explained. Since then she has contributed to many books and magazines (including New West), and won the Harper’s award for Distinguished Magazine writing in 1999. I recently interviewed Hansen via email about how the book came about, Colorado’s endangered places, and why Boulder is a “terrible” base for a freelance writer. Heather Hansen will discuss and sign her book in Denver at the Tattered Cover (LoDo) on May 28 (7:30 p.m.), in Boulder on May 31 at Patagonia (4:30-6:30 p.m.) and at Border’s on June 7 (5:30 p.m.), and in Portland at Powell’s on July 17 (7:30 p.m.).
New West: How long have you lived in Boulder, and what brought you here?
Heather Hansen: Just before moving to Boulder six years ago, I was living in New York and doing some reporting for a book on the aftermath of the World Trade Center destruction. I spent all day talking to women who had lost their husbands, and children whose parents had been killed. Every day I was devastated for them, but I learned a lesson that’s stayed with me: if there’s something you want to do in life, get to it. I’d lived on both coasts, and abroad, but I really wanted to spend some time near the mountains. And now I’m home.
NW: How did you first become involved in travel and environmental writing?
HH: Travel and the environment are long-time passions and this book allowed me to explore the overlap between the two in a way that enhanced my globetrotting. It’s one thing to go diving in the Galápagos; it’s another thing entirely to see the islands through the eyes of a naturalist who grew up there and is devoted to protecting them.
HH: Kim and I were at a conference in Denver, talking about the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, which had just come out. We tossed around the idea of “1,000 Places to See Before THEY Die.” Once we started looking at our favorite places in that context, we became obsessed with writing a book that could help travelers see their dream destinations as whole places with real issues that affect the lives of the people who live there and, ultimately, the viability of the locations themselves.
NW: How did you and Kimberly Lisagor meet? Have you collaborated before?
HH: We met at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley in 1997. We’d long admired each other’s work and had been waiting for the right opportunity to collaborate; Disappearing Destinations gave us that. While we were at Berkeley we trained for and ran the LA Marathon and edited a magazine together so we knew, early on, that we could go the distance on a chosen project.
NW: How did you decide which places to write about?
HH: Picking which places to cover was somewhat grueling. Our first list had 200 places on it but, in the interest of covering each destination comprehensively, we had to cut it way down. We worked hard to get both a geographical cross-section as well as a decent representation of environmental issues.
NW: Did you or Kimberly Lisagor travel to each of the locations you describe? How did you divide up the places you wanted to cover?
HH: Splitting them up was actually easier than you might think. We already had first-hand experiences with most of 37 places prior to writing the book and the ones that we traveled to specifically for the book were places on our personal ‘must see’ lists.
NW: As sad as the environmental degradation you write about is, it sounds like a great gig to travel to as many places as you did to write this book. Did your publisher cover your travel expenses?
HH: All travel was on our dime, including paying for carbon credits to offset our emissions (it was really important for us to ‘neutralize’ our own journeys). Going to some of the places that are being greatly impacted by tourism was particularly tricky but, in each of them, we saw how effective responsible travel can be as a conservation strategy.
NW: How long did it take to travel to all these places, and how long did it take to write the book?
HH: The whole process–from concept to publication–took about two-and-a-half years. We traveled sporadically throughout that time. My longest stretch away from home was a month I spent in Peru and Ecuador.
NW: What was your basic game plan at each of these destinations–how did you set up interviews and conduct research?
HH: Most of the research and interview scheduling was done before we got to a place, though we took every opportunity to interview on the fly. There were times when I stumbled upon some great characters. Jett Hitt, the composer-poet-cowboy in the Yellowstone chapter, was one such find. I met him by chance but realized right away that he should tell readers about Yellowstone’s history, sights and sounds.
NW: Global warming seems to be the cause of many of the problems you describe, particularly in two places in this region, the Cascades and Glacier National Park. Do you think it’s more difficult for local people to respond to the situation when the cause is so widespread?
HH: In the case of climate change in this region, there’s plenty that people can do on a daily basis to mitigate its effects. (Aspen’s innovative “Canary Initiative,” is a great example.) It may be difficult to see immediate results but that doesn’t mean we aren’t making a marked difference at a critical time. As Gerald Meehl, a climate modeler at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder says in the book: “The longer we wait, the worse the problem gets. Every day we’re committing ourselves to climate change in the future. When you view it that way, it’s not something that you should just give up on. It’s something that should motivate you to do something about it sooner rather than later.” In the case of indigenous people, like the Inuit in the Arctic or Pacific islanders—who did little to land themselves in the throes of global warming—the answer is sadly more straightforward. At this point, rapid adaptation to a new reality is their only option.
Since our expertise is in how to travel more mindfully our message is also that all us have control over the way we move around the world. We have the power to affect change–for worse, or we hope better–in these places with the choices we make. For example, if you go to the Galápagos, you have the choice whether or not to support an outfitter with a proven record of environmental stewardship and investment in the local community. Or, more generally, if you usually take two one-week trips a year, consider taking one two-week trip instead. This cuts down on carbon emissions and increases the likelihood that you’ll connect with the place you’re going. We talk a lot about traveling “right,” which can be tough if you’re not sure how to get started. We give some resources for that in the book.
NW: You list many environmental problems in your chapter on Yellowstone National Park, including bison herds who wander out of the park and are slaughtered and noise and air pollution from snowmobiling. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Yellowstone National Park?
HH: Like all national parks, Yellowstone’s greatest challenge is a lack of funding. A $23 million budget shortfall every year greatly affects wildlife management and other park policies. The bison situation, for example, has gotten worse since the book went to press. According to National Park Service statistics, the herd now numbers around 2,200 animals, fewer than half of what it was last fall. Over 1,600 bison were killed by hunters or shipped to slaughterhouses in an effort to prevent the spread of brucellosis. Another 700 animals succumbed to the harsh winter. The aesthetic and ecological effects of the bison’s disappearance in the park cannot be underestimated.
In terms of the management of humans in the park, the possibility of more cell phone towers is a serious problem, not only from a visual standpoint but because of the sense of wildness that’s ultimately lost when, no matter where you are in the park, you can hear someone buying or selling stock (which I overheard while I was overlooking the breathtaking Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone). The use of snowmobiles is another issue that persists, despite having obvious environmental impacts and not having widespread support among ordinary Americans.
NW: What do you suggest that people who are concerned about the issues you raise in your book do?
HH: What needs to be done really varies from one location to the next. In some places, responsible tourism is the “great green hope” as I talk about in the Appalachia chapter. Just going there and contributing to the diversification of the economy makes a difference (this is also the case in the Congo Basin and the Amazon where tourism revenue can sustain a population in the long tern, while logging cannot). Every place in the book has advocates working to protect it, many of which we listed in an appendix.
NW: You don’t mention any in the book, but is there a place in Colorado that you would consider endangered?
HH: Absolutely. Both the Roan Plateau and the statewide spruce bark beetle epidemic are issues that have been on my radar for a few years now. I hoped to write about bark beetles in Disappearing Destinations but, at the time we were finalizing our list, the jury was still out on how widespread the destruction was going to be. It’s been good to see that the issue is getting more coverage in the mainstream press now and, if it’s too late to prevent the death of trees, it’s not too late to think about the aftermath, which includes increased fire danger.
NW: What is your next project? Do you plan to write another book?
HH: Over the summer I’ll be writing some chapters for a mainstream green travel guide that will be out next year. Beyond that, I’d really like to focus on the West for a while. And my first love is nature writing, so I’d really like to do more of that.
NW: Is Boulder a good base for freelance writing?
HH: It’s terrible! There’s far too much temptation here to go outside and play. At the same time, I’m constantly inspired by my neighbors who use their lives and work to do so much good. Some of the scientists who contributed to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore last year, are based in Boulder. As are some photographers and filmmakers who have risked their lives to document these changes.
Heather Hansen will discuss and sign her book in Denver at the Tattered Cover (LoDo) on May 28 (7:30 p.m.), in Boulder on May 31 at Patagonia (4:30-6:30 p.m.) and at Border’s on June 7 (5:30 p.m.), and in Portland at Powell’s on July 17 (7:30 p.m.).