Concepts to Manage Resources for a Spectrum of Experiences

Trees with frost next to river. Following World War II, improved roads, reliable cars, and a growing economy made the great outdoors more accessible to more people. The paradox: as people surged to our forests and wildlands, these areas became less wild and the visitors' experience changed. Researchers developed the framework that helps balance resources and facilitate recreation. The science of outdoor recreation analysis is relatively new, but can trace much of its beginnings to the University of Minnesota and the USDA Forest Service, North Central Research Station in St. Paul. The first studies—in the 1960s—were of users of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Itasca State Park, the Mississippi River, and Isle Royale National Park.

Family hiking in the snow.Forest Service, National Park Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and university researchers work cooperatively to develop strategies to manage natural areas to sustain both the resource and the human experience. Scientists developed the concept of "social carrying capacity" to help managers think in terms of how many people a given area can handle for a specific activity before either the experience or resource is degraded.

The only remaining social sciences research program of the National Park Service is at the U of M and involves studies of the nation's most-visited national parks, including Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone. And, the College of Natural Resources is host to a new collaboration to study how human actions, including recreation, affect Great Lakes area ecosystems. Researchers are also expanding their focus from public lands to include resource-based tourism and the impact of private business on the natural resources that attract visitors.

Whatever one's passion or pastime—hunting or fishing, cross-country skiing or hiking, snowmobiling, or ATV use—it impacts soils, vegetation, wildlife, water quality, and people. The science of recreation resource management combines sociology, psychology, economics, wildlife, forestry, fisheries, conservation, and public policy. With increased demand for recreation, research helps park, land, and water managers measure needs and resources and guides them in complex decision making.

Wild and Scenic River Legislation

Twenty years of river recreation studies helped shape federal and state Wild and Scenic River legislation that now guides development of public lands along the St. Croix, Kettle, and Mississippi rivers and waterways across the U.S. University researchers developed the Water Resource Management plan for the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and lead efforts to manage multiuse trails in the Snake River watershed.

Recreation in the Boundary Waters

People at boundary waters canoe area.Access to Minnesota's northern wilderness areas, particularly in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park, is a recurring debate and has generated many studies to craft balanced policies for use. The first published University studies surveyed visitors in Minnesota's "canoe country" in the late '50s and documented emerging issues: campers were looking for amenities such as more picnic tables and better toilets, while the more self-reliant canoeists basically wanted the wilderness left alone. A five-year U of M Agricultural Experiment Station study in the early years of the BWCAW found that designated campsites are greatly affected by soil compaction and loss of vegetation in the first two years of use but show little degradation after, and led to the designation of fixed campsites. This 1970s era campsite, with a motorboat visible and audible to the campers, is now in a canoe-only area.

Family at a park in the fall. Classifying Land Use for Development and Recreation

People choose a specific setting for their recreational activities and have underlying values and expectations. For example, hiking on a rough trail in a remote setting offers some visitors a sense of solitude, challenge, and self-reliance. In contrast, a short, hard-surfaced, interpretive trail with facilities offers others more comfort, security, and social opportunities.

U.S. researchers developed a framework—classifying land use from primitive to roaded-natural to rural to urban—that helps inventory, plan, and manage recreational experiences and settings. Managers use that framework to provide a spectrum of choices for people, so the benefits they seek (from solitude to family time to making new friends) are realized.

Land Development Profiles

People boating on a lake.The concept of riparian area development "profiles," linking biophysical and social characteristics important to shoreland development, came from a collaboration of the USDA Forest Service and U of M researchers. Profiles can be used to identify potential development hot spots so policy makers, planners, and managers can take timely steps to manage or control the impacts of development. This is an acute need as Minnesota's lake country is in demand by younger retirees with increased recreational time and more money to spend on recreational activities.

Large group in national park during winter.Park Permits and Limited Access

Park and wilderness use increased dramatically in the 1970s, and Minnesota's BWCAW became the most heavily used wilderness in the nation. It was precisely that popularity that led the USDA Forest Service to regulate use, with entry permits required since 1966, and limited access beginning in 1976.

Visitors to national parks and wilderness areas are now made aware of ways to minimize their impact; research has documented that unrestricted use can damage and even destroy the natural environment people seek.

Related Websites

Great Lakes - Northern Forest Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit

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