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The trekking industry and the environment

An analysis of the impact of trekking on the environment and the ban around bugyal camping in Uttarakhand.

It is widely known now that tourism activities have an impact on ecosystems. By always wanting to explore a bit further and discover new remote areas, tourists are unbalancing the natural environment and the local environment of the places they visit.

It is a common process that once a tourist sets his foot in an untouched area, other people will discover it. Routes will then start appearing along with restaurants and guesthouses. That often has a positive impact on the economy of the regions, but it also changes the way of living of its habitants and affects nature.

The impact of trekking on the environment.

Intensive commercial trekking also impacts the ecosystems that surround the routes. Along with the imposing amount of plastic waste carried by the trekkers in their food and water supply, the development of the trekking industry leads to the permanent construction of hotels, restaurants, and shops.

This is the view from the summit of the trek to Kedarnath temple. We can observe a big touristic development on this place which used to be fully natural.
Kedarnath Temple and its hotels.

When environmental laws do not regulate the treks, the development can be massive. In some mountains in India, like the ones around Kedarnath Temple or the Gangotri National Park, we have also seen the implementation of large tourist companies running helicopter tours around the region.

The campsites can welcome thousands of trekkers in a year. That many tents pitched on the same parcel of ground can significantly impact soil erosion. Also, the lack of installation to deal with the waste of the camps causes damage to the environment. That waste often ends up directly on the ground and is carried everywhere by wind and rain.

It is drastically important to take care of our environment in all of our activities. Trekking is an important industry and needs to be regulated to lower its impact on the ecosystems and ensure the conservation of the beautiful sceneries that every trekker is after.

The state of Uttarakhand in India has made a small step in that direction by creating a ban on overnight camping in its meadows.

A ban on overnight camping.

The ban on camping in Uttarakhand meadows (or bugyal, in Hindi) is a decision taken by the Uttarakhand High Court in 2018 to protect the environment of these ecosystems.

The decision was made following the Auli Bedni Bagji Bugyal Preservation Committee's public interest litigation (PIL) in 2014. The goal of this PIL was to protect the Auli, Bedni, and Bagji bugyals, which are meadows located in the popular trekking routes of Roopkund and Nanda Devi Raj Jat treks. The intensive trekking activities and indiscriminate grazing were found to have a damaging impact on the fragile ecosystem of these meadows.

In response to that PIL, in August 2018, the court ordered a ban on night stays in the meadows and a prohibition on commercial grazing. The court's order also included creating eco-development committees and preparing flora and fauna manuals in every sensitive area, as well as proceeding to general cleaning of the meadows from their plastic waste. These meadows also had to be converted into national parks or sanctuaries.

After that court's decision, the chief forest conservator of Uttarakhand extended the restriction of overnight camping to all alpine and sub-alpine meadows of the province. Several other reserves and national parks also prohibited night camps. It is the case of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, Gangotri National Park, Govind Wildlife Sanctuary, and Pithoragarh, Chamoli, and Uttarkashi National Parks.

The ban's impact on trekkers.

The restrictions in place increase the difficulty for trekkers to explore the mountains of Uttarakhand. However, it is essential to understand that it is still possible to trek on those routes.

All trekkers now need a permit issued by a forest officer to go trekking in restricted areas. The licenses require medical certificates, a no-objection certificate from the weather department, Aadhaar card or passport photocopies, contact numbers and signatures of the trekkers, and a certificate of liability for the trekkers' safety to the organizing trekking agency. Some fees also need to be paid by the trekkers so they can be allowed in the area.

The campsites also have to be installed away from the meadows. Trekkers who will get caught camping in the restricted areas can be fined for amounts up to 150 000 rupees (1,5 lakh).

An effect on the local economy

As in many departments, the economy and environment enter into conflict.

The Himalayas in the Garhwal region make Uttarakhand a reputed spot for trekkers from India and elsewhere. There is an average of 5 000 trekkers per year, and the state earns around 10 000 to 12 000 rupees per trekker. The ban on overnight camping reduces the number of trekkers coming to the state and diminishes the income of the trekking and tourism industry.

An environmentally conscious camp in Harkidun trek

The ban's impact is mainly on the local trekking companies, who have built relations and itineraries over time. Uttarakhand-based companies are losing most of their business, while more prominent tour operators can transfer their work to other states, like Himachal Pradesh.

The small local companies have to adjust to the ban and find solutions to reorient their business. Since environmental concerns have been gaining importance over the years, adapting and following a sustainable path will be essential.

Japam is one of the Uttarakhand local companies that can be impacted by the ban and environment conservation rules.

Our priority is to limit our impact on the environment. We make sure to carry the minimum amount of waste and bring it all out of the trek with us. We also privilege small groups to control our impact on the environment better. We are always providing the trekking permits to our trekkers, and we make sure that we respect the recommendations of the forest department in the region we visit.

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