The heavy crowds at Warren Falls, on all but the busiest few weekends a year, are a recent and manufactured trend. It went like this: A parking area was made, signage installed and the place was promoted widely in Valley tourism materials. Then when it got super crowded (surprise!) more signage was installed and promotion continued – now it’s a “Summer Recreation Area” on Route 100 complete with flashing yellow lights. And, recently, because ever more people want to be at the falls, busing people in is being considered. There is no wisdom in this, nor is there any responsibility to this place or its people, including, ironically, the visitors themselves and their own safety.
Warren Falls doesn't have an unlimited capacity (nor does The Valley as a whole) – it's not a highway or a stadium – you can't simply expand it. Warren Falls and other natural settings of this Valley exist irrespective of visitor days. They have a reality unto themselves that has nothing to do with economic growth agendas. As members of this community it is our responsibility to protect such places rather than try to sell them out as much as possible. On a crowded day at the falls every additional person swimming or jumping adds to the danger present. This is an inescapable reality of a place where people are jumping into pools, often from multiple sides. The risk of people landing on one another is significant and these accidents have already happened multiple times here. People will get badly injured or worse, and the bigger the crowds the more frequently it will happen – that’s the simple math of it. As tourism promoters continue to find ways to encourage jamming people into the pools at the falls, that risk and many others are multiplied. The danger is directly proportional to the amount of people present.
Rather than continue to consider solutions that are actually a continuation of the problem in the first place, it is time to change course. Too often we are focused on answers to the wrong question – in this case, how to bring yet more people to a place already beyond capacity. Making more access to a place while promoting it actually makes a place busier. Full stop. Can we recognize this fact with regard to all the other places yet to be damaged in this Valley?
Promotion and economic development, while offering some (well-publicized) benefits, also carry with them hard, irreversible costs to the commons of this place and its people. But these are generally unspoken and ignored. The latest suggestion of busing people in to the falls accelerates the actual problem here and will generate new problems as well. How much sunscreen, DEET, urine, antiperspirant, deodorant and physical disturbance is acceptable in the headwaters of the Mad River? The other day at the river I watched a mom spray her child down with Off bug repellent and then as he jumped in I saw a shiny film spread from him across the surface of the water around him. You can see this film at Warren Falls on any busy day, which now means almost all sunny summer days, weekdays or weekends. In this once fairly wild place, the Mad River now only gets a rest at night. I can already see a research project forming to address the impact of thousands of swimmers per week in the upper reaches of the Mad River.
The script here is classic – keep enabling ever more access, keep promoting a place and just cross your fingers that the problem won't get worse, and when it does, keep doing more of the same thing but with some tweaks. Eventually, with enough accidents or deaths or erosion to the river channel, the USFS can just decide the liability isn’t worth it. This is federal land and its administrators can close it anytime they deem it necessary to protect the public or a resource. They’ve done so innumerable times in the past.
Instead, Warren can decide on a safe capacity – represented by the number of vehicles – and tow vehicles beyond that. Warren can decide that it’s the health of the watershed and its human community that is paramount here, rather than the endless enabling of a tourist attraction. If Warren doesn’t want to pay for it, they should have thought about that before promoting the place and drawing the crowds whose dollars they were after. Perhaps share the funding (if needed) for the towing between Warren and the chamber of commerce, which has also promoted the falls and caused this problem to begin with. This problem was avoidable in the first place; let's not keep making it worse. And let's begin to recognize how easily a place can be damaged by access and promotion. It's a one-way street. Once a place is popularized there’s no reversing it. At best, there’s only mitigating the problem. Using the increased tax revenue generated from selling out the Mad River Valley in the first place, it’s high time for us to start spending more on dealing with a small proportion of the collateral damage tourism causes here in the first place.
Falk lives in Moretown.