(WHTM) — At the airport in Guayaquil, Ecuador, I tossed my carry-on suitcase and backpack onto a conveyor, cringing when my reusable metal water bottle fell out of the side pocket of my backpack and clunked onto the floor loudly, and watched my luggage disappear into an airport contraption.

Similar to the security machines I’m used to at my hometown Harrisburg International Airport, this one scans the bags, but the bags are specifically checked for fruits, vegetables, or other organic materials that might introduce harmful species to my final destination, the Galapagos Islands. As my plane flew toward Baltra Island, the passengers’ bags were sprayed with an aerosol that also helps prevent the introduction of foreign organisms and materials to the archipelago.

The ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands maintains a delicate balance that can be disrupted by something as small as a fly. Visitors like me and the rest of the 30-some passengers aboard Lindblad Expedition’s Islander ship are drawn to the Galapagos by its unique species, volcanic landscapes, and historical connections to science, so great care is taken to ensure that visitors do not harm the islands’ environment.

When venturing onto the Galapagos Islands, visitors must be accompanied by a naturalist guide, they must stay on the designated trails, they cannot touch or feed the animals, they cannot take anything off of the islands, they cannot smoke, and they are asked to only bring water to drink whenever possible. Rules like these help to protect the islands’ ecosystems and preserve their natural state.

The Galapagos National Park was established in 1959 to preserve the natural elements of the Galapagos, and today, 97% of the land surface of the islands is protected by the park.

Vanessa Gallo, expedition leader on Lindblad Expedition’s Islander ship, lives on the island of Santa Cruz and says that the strict regulations in Galapagos have changed in her lifetime. “When we were going out in the first boats, it was normal that we brought our sandwich, and then I remember the land iguanas that saw us coming, we were giving them a piece…so we didn’t have those rules,” Gallo said.

Vanessa Gallo, Lindblad Expeditions expedition leader (Photo: Avery Van Etten)

“I grew up in a different time. I was very fortunate to go out with my granny, with my uncle, taking the boat and exploring the islands,” Gallo said. “I had a fantastic time with them exploring the Galapagos. I know places that nobody has been to, and they are great. But the more people you have, the harder to manage and to control.”

Gallo says that the rules changed as more visitors came and as leaders learned new information. She says it is important for Galapagos’ environment to be protected, but the regulations also mean that younger generations of Galapagos residents won’t get to have the experiences she did and might not fully appreciate how special their home is.

Some are asking for more areas of the islands to be opened up to people, Gallo said. Like the ecosystems on the islands maintain their own natural balance, Ecuadorian officials, researchers, and naturalists are trying to balance conservation with creating opportunities for people to visit the archipelago, which the Galapagos National Park website calls “a living laboratory.”

“This trip can change your life,” Gallo said. “In most other places, unfortunately, we hurt animals, we destroy their environment, so they’re afraid of us.” In Galapagos, though, that’s not the case.

Walking in the woods at home in Pennsylvania, I’ll occasionally encounter a deer or a fox, and it will dart away as soon as it sees me. On the Galapagos Islands, I had to constantly watch where I stepped because there could be an iguana or a sea lion lying on the path, completely unfazed by the people passing by.

There is a rule on the Galapagos Islands that humans have to stay at least 6 feet away from the animals, but if the animals decide they want to approach you, they can — and they do. Multiple times, I kneeled down to snap photos of birds that chose to walk right up to me. Once I was startled by a jet of salty liquid that shot down from above me, where a marine iguana was lounging on a rock and sneezing out salt.

“You are part of nature again. We human beings, we’re part of nature, we cannot take us outside. We can do many good things, but we are not the top of the top; we’re part of this wonderful environment, we’re a piece of the big chain, and that’s what you feel here,” Gallo said.

As much as protecting the unique species of the Galapagos — numerous lizards, iguanas, tortoises, birds, plants, and more that are found only in this archipelago — is a main goal of Ecuador and of environmentalists, giving people the opportunity to have these special interactions with nature is also meaningful.

Visiting the Galapagos was on the bucket list of Phillip Vinson, a passenger on the Islander who lives in the Cincinnati area. He said that he will leave the islands with friendships and memories of experiences like kayaking and snorkeling, but “more than probably anything, what we’ve experienced in the nature kingdom” will stick with him.

“Every day, I’ve thought that there was no way to top the day before,” said Islander passenger Tamara Whitson from Bowling Green, Ohio. “Every day has been absolutely amazing in the variety of wildlife, the proximity that you can get to the wildlife, and the stark beauty of the entire archipelago…Beauty is defined in many different ways, and this has a beauty all its own that I’m not sure could be replicated.”

Ecotourism, which is defined by The International Ecotourism Society as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education,” is a major reason people visit the Galapagos Islands. But here in Pennsylvania, there are numerous opportunities to explore and interact with nature, too.

The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) manages 300,000 acres of state park land and 2.2 million acres of forestland. Local organizations also maintain their own natural spaces around the state. Pennsylvania residents and visitors can hike, boat, camp, and more in these outdoor spaces, and while the state’s environment is rather different from that of Galapagos, it still has some spectacular opportunities to observe wildlife and spend time in nature.

Each year between February and March, thousands of snow geese migrate through the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster County, and around 150,000 people from Pennsylvania, surrounding states, and even sometimes other countries come to see the migrating birds each year, said Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area Manager Lauren Ferreri.

“At Middle Creek, I think being in nature, whether you’re hiking or coming to see the snow goose migration, where you can see this spectacle of hundreds of thousands of birds in one location, kind of takes us back a little bit ancestrally, if you will, to this connection that we did have with the land, and I think a lot of people do forget about that until they have the opportunity to be in that space,” Ferreri said.

While people do have the potential to harm natural spaces — in one very visible example, we’ve probably all seen discarded face masks and empty beverage containers along hiking trails — those who visit these places often also learn to care for the environment and may even become advocates for it.

Generally, “those that are out in the parks or forests recreating, they like to learn about those spaces, and they really value and work to advocate and protect those resources, as well,” said Ellen Shultzabarger, director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry and the state forester with the DCNR.

State parks often include educational components to teach people about the environments they are visiting, Shultzabarger said, and Ferreri said that education coupled with experiences in nature “is all to instill that intrinsic value so that people care enough to make sure that it stays.”

In Galapagos, Vinson said, “Seeing how this ecosystem has evolved over time and how there are still foreign things that come into the environment and have potential hazard to them just highlights what a delicate eco-balance we live in and how careful we have to be to protect it.” Ferreri, Shultzabarger, and others say this is exactly the kind of meaningful realization experiences in nature can facilitate.

Just as there are rules in Galapagos to ensure that human visitors don’t harm the islands’ ecosystems, there are also practices in place and steps people can take in Pennsylvania to protect the natural spaces they visit. Shultzabarger said careful management of natural spaces plays a major role in preserving wild elements while also providing opportunities for recreation.

Carter Hunt, associate professor of recreation, park, and tourism management and anthropology at The Pennsylvania State University, agrees. “That’s where the opportunity to inject sustainability or responsibility is, is in the management,” he said.

In addition to the rules for visitors in Galapagos, the itineraries of ships taking tourists around the islands are carefully managed to prevent overcrowding, said Hunt, who researches nature-based tourism and has been to the Galapagos about a dozen times. While Pennsylvania doesn’t have the same kind of intense regulation as the Galapagos Islands, there are still conservation management procedures in place here.

At Middle Creek, for example, people are prohibited from entering or boating in certain parts of the wildlife management area during certain times of the year so they don’t disturb the birds resting or nesting there. There are also areas of DCNR-managed lands that are closed to human visitors because they are home to rare or endangered species.

Signs along the trails on the Galapagos Islands guide visitors to stay on the paths (Photo: Avery Van Etten)

“Sometimes when people find or know about a rare plant community or a rare plant, people can love them to death,” said Greg Podniesinski, who manages the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program and serves as chief of the Natural Heritage Section in the DCNR’s Bureau of Forestry. The concern is that people may disturb a rare species or natural space to the point of doing unintentional damage to it, so the DCNR and other agencies use management and planning to prevent that from happening.

This is one of the reasons why, in the Galapagos and in Pennsylvania, people visiting natural spaces are told to stay on the designated paths; straying from those paths can damage organisms and habitats and disturb animals living there.

A significant part of wildlife management is people management, Ferreri said, to ensure that natural spaces aren’t harmed. But she and everyone else I spoke to agreed that with proper management and planning, it is ultimately beneficial to offer people access to natural places.

On top of the potential for people to learn and to develop a sense of value for the environment when they spend time in these spaces, the DCNR Director of Outdoor Recreation Nathan Reigner noted that there are also physical and mental health benefits and economic benefits — $11.8 billion a year added to the state’s economy — to creating opportunities for outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

Outdoor recreation involves the relationship between “the hiker and the trail” Reigner said, but it also involves lawmakers and policymakers, conservationists, guides, and outfitters. It impacts numerous stakeholders in Pennsylvania, and the potential wide-ranging impacts of outdoor recreation have been leveraged through ecotourism opportunities.

Hunt explained that ecotourism, which is historically associated with sustainable development, prioritizes social and environmental concerns over economic ones, and it emphasizes the idea of bettering the places one visits. For example, in Galapagos, Lindblad Expeditions provides farm-to-table food that comes from local farmers. This helps prevent foreign species from coming to the islands on food products shipped from other places, and it helps support Galapagos residents.

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Ecotourism destinations can receive revenue from visitors that can be used to support their environmental and conservation work, Hunt noted, and that can also help prevent the land from being used for other income sources like mining or industrial forestry, which could have more detrimental impacts on the environment.

A marine iguana relaxes on Fernandina island (Photo: Avery Van Etten)

“As somebody that works in a lot of really biodiverse parts of the planet, to get at the issue, ‘Why is it [opportunities to visit natural spaces] important?’ It’s because we’re losing species at 1,000 times the background rates. One of the things that motivates me to work in these places is so that I get a chance to see things before they’re gone. And I’ve seen things get lost,” Hunt said.

Hunt and others hope that when people have opportunities to see these species and to develop an appreciation of nature, they will want to take steps to help them. After watching a curious sea lion trying to steal a backpack or an iguana sleeping on the beach with its arms lazily stretched along its sides in Galapagos, or after observing a massive owl hooting from a tree branch in the Pennsylvania twilight, it’s hard not to feel attached.