It’s almost Earth Day again. Each year, on the appointed day, thousands of Americans make a ritual of caring for the planet: planting a tree, picking up litter, or simply stopping to smell the roses. Yet the interest, of course, goes far beyond that for many, even reshaping leisure pursuits. Growing trends in ecotourism and agritourism do not necessarily signal a transformative new mindset about the environment, but the surging popularity of visiting working farms, farmers’ co-ops, and public markets and patronizing farm-to-table-minded restaurants suggest more than a passing fancy for seeking bonds to the natural world around us.

Silver Springs

A glass-bottom boat plies illusively pristine waters at Florida's Silver Springs. Photo by Andy Cardiff on Flickr

Traditional tourist destinations seldom figure prominently in any discussion of environmental tourism, but they should. Take water, for instance. Near- and long-term concerns about water supplies and their quality have a tremendous impact on tourism. Three of the destinations featured in American Tourism: Constructing a National Tradition have been in the headlines in recent weeks for such concerns. Tombstone, Arizona, the “Town Too Tough To Die,” almost died when the silver mines of the 19th century failed to keep yielding the precious metal. Tourist fascination revived the ghost town’s fortunes once, but now, in the wake of last year’s destructive wildfires, Tombstone’s water supply is in danger. Damaged water pipes inside a federally designated wilderness area have pitted the tourist town against federal officials, whose regulations designed to protect managed scenic lands mean red tape stands in the way of a simple solution. Thus, water claims, perennially a thorny issue in the West for more than a century, lie at the center of a tourist region’s future.

Jessica Yu’s eco-documentary film Last Call at the Oasis, which screens at this weekend’s Nashville Film Festival, trains the camera on Las Vegas, a desert fantasy with mammoth casinos, a patchwork of golf courses and manicured lawns, and millions of residents and tourists that guzzle untold millions of gallons each day. Casino-goers and the tourist industry that pampers them gamble on the indefinite future of a pipeline from the distant and endangered Colorado River. As Reuters reported on April 19, an expert panel at a convention of the National Federation of Municipal Analysts held in Las Vegas warned of the growing costs of maintaining current levels of consumption, including in the freewheeling gaming mecca.

Water may be out of sight, out of mind in Tombstone and Las Vegas, but it defines another of our national attractions, Silver Springs in central Florida. As the Ocala Star-Banner reported earlier this month, the planned 24,000-acre cattle ranch would, if approved, potentially pump more water each day out of the aquifer that feeds Silver Springs than Ocala – a city of 55,000. The newly formed Silver Springs Alliance has been questioning Adena Springs Ranch’s plans to raise 30,000 cattle and that would graze prior to processing. As is true of any agribusiness, the popular “grass-fed beef” has its own environmental price tag. With its flow at only fifty percent of historic levels and beginning to be clouded with nitrates as a result of surrounding development, the iconic tourist attraction may now face a greater challenge than it faced when Walt Disney World’s 1971 opening introduced unprecedented competition for visitors: how to ensure that its famed glass-bottomed boat tours still offer an up-close view of a deep, crystalline lagoon teeming with colorful fish.