Five Autumn Adventures Under Threat

Get outside and enjoy these fall escapes—before it’s too late.

Trees in the Adirondacks change colors in the fall months drawing thousands of visitors every year.
Trees in the Adirondacks change colors in the fall months drawing thousands of visitors every year. (Doug Lemke/Shutterstock)

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It’s that time of year again, when the leaves turn brilliant shades of gold and red, the weather turns crisp and Starbucks customers eagerly await their turn in line for the first pumpkin spice latte of the season.

The #PSL craze aside, fall is the last chance for many of us to explore wild places without bundling up in a puffy coat. Whether you celebrate fall by jumping into a pile of leaves, picking apples from your favorite local orchard or leaf peeping in wild vistas, here are five autumn escapes to check out during the harvest season. But you better move fast—despite their immense beauty and popularity, they’re all under threat.

1. Glacier National Park, Montana

This park is known for its cold, icy origins. After all, its peaks and valleys were literally carved by glaciers, some of which still remain today. But Glacier National Park also boasts dramatic scenes of fall foliage during that short, blissful window between the summer tourist season and the frost-filled winter. Get the best view of Glacier’s fall splendor by cycling or driving along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which offers an awe-inspiring vista of the parks’ pristine forests and alpine meadows in all of their autumn glory.

Though it’s one of the wildest places left in the lower 48 states, Glacier National Park and its surroundings aren’t immune to dirty energy proposals. For more than 30 years, the oil and gas industry has been fighting to drill an area near the park known as the Badger-Two Medicine, a region that’s considered sacred by the Blackfeet Nation. In March 2016, the Interior Department canceled one of the illegal oil and gas leases, but the battle to defend the Badger-Two Medicine is far from over.

2. Adirondack Park, New York

Adirondack Park in northern New York state is known to have one of the longest foliage seasons in the Northeast, with trees like the sugar maple, American beech and yellow birch changing colors in September and October. So it’s no surprise that every year thousands of leaf peepers flock to the park, which covers more than six million acres and is the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi. In addition to ogling the fall foliage, visitors can canoe or kayak in the area’s numerous pristine lakes and rivers, cycle along scenic roads and trails or even visit a haunted resort.

But the increasing popularity of Adirondack Park has created pressure to open more areas to motor vehicles and snowmobiles, shrinking the wilderness and creating the potential for overuse and degradation of the park’s most sensitive ecosystems. Case in point: New York state’s plan to allow motor vehicles and snowmobiles into two of the most remote and wild parts of the Adirondacks. Earthjustice, on behalf of Protect the Adirondacks and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, is suing the state to prevent the unlawful opening of these wild areas to motorized uses. “The state’s actions are not only illegal, but [they] set a dangerous precedent for other areas of our wild Adirondacks,” said Earthjustice attorney Chris Amato in an interview with the Albany Times Union.

3. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The Grand Teton’s grandiose mountain range is by far the park’s biggest draw, but the region is also home to a number of cottonwoods, aspens and willows that dot the landscape in yellows, oranges and reds during the autumn season. One of the area’s most impressive trees is known for its seeds, not its leaves. A twisted, gnarled-looking tree, the whitebark pine produces squat cones packed with high-energy, calorie-dense seeds that bring out bears and other animals eager to fatten up for the long winter ahead.

Unfortunately, whitebark pines are disappearing faster than you can turn your clocks back due to an outbreak of pine-eating beetles caused by warmer temperatures. The resulting seed scarcity is causing grizzlies to spend more time at lower elevations, which increases the chances for human and bear conflicts. In 2011, an appeals court reinstated Endangered Species Act protections for the bears after Earthjustice successfully argued that the loss of whitebark pines threatened their survival. But many threats to the bears remain.

4. Sunset and White River National Forest Roadless Areas, Colorado

The Sunset Roadless Area, located in western Colorado’s Gunnison National Forest, is a place of immense beauty. In addition to prime wildlife habitat, the area offers plenty of opportunities for hikers to enjoy serene, wild terrain full of yellow aspen leaves that’s far from crowds. The Sunset area also sits next to the iconic West Elk Wilderness, a haven for wild trout, black bears, beavers and elk. And if you’re lucky, you might spot a lynx, a species so elusive that the state park’s department enlists tourists to help track them.

The lynx remains a threatened species, and so do Colorado’s wild places, which for years have been in the crosshairs of fossil fuel development. In 2014, the Sunset area got a reprieve from this threat after a court overturned the government’s decision to approve an underground coal mining plan that would bulldoze through the Sunset’s pristine public lands. But the Forest Service is pushing for more coal mining, with Earthjustice pushing back to stop the mining proposal. We’re also working to stop oil and gas drilling in the nearby White River National Forest, which threatens tens of thousands of acres of pristine roadless lands. In July, the government proposed canceling 25 oil and gas leases in this forest, while also rolling back protections for other leases in the area. The fight continues.

5. Columbia River Gorge, Oregon and Washington

In case you get a late start on leaf peeping this year, you should definitely check out the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, an 85-mile-long canyon. Its low elevation means that the area’s big-leaf maple and cottonwood trees turn colors especially late in the season. In addition to the many leaf-peeping opportunities, be sure to check out one of the gorge’s most popular attractions, Multnomah Falls, which releases a torrent of cold water throughout the year. During the fall, Multnomah’s silvery cascade serves as the ultimate backdrop to the area’s orange- and red-tinged trees.

Though Multnomah Falls is said to have been created to win the heart of a young princess looking for a private place to bathe, it hasn’t been as easy winning the hearts and minds of those who want to keep all the salmon-killing dams on the nearby Columbia and Snake rivers. The rivers once hosted the world’s greatest wild salmon runs, but today it is the most heavily dammed river system on earth—and four outdated and expensive dams on the lower Snake River are an especially notorious death trap for salmon. Recently a judge demanded that the government create a new dam management plan that actually protects endangered wild salmon and gives them a chance to recover.

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.