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A Review and Synthesis of Recreation Ecology Research Supporting Carrying Capacity and Visitor Use Management Decisionmaking

This article reviews the most recent and relevant recreation ecology studies that have been applied in wildland settings to avoid or minimize resource impacts.

by Jeffrey Marion, Ph.D., Federal Scientist, U.S. Geological Survey


Marion SOK Paper on Recreation Ecology Applications 2016


Resource and experiential impacts associated with visitation to wilderness and other similar backcountry settings have long been addressed by land managers under the context of “carrying capacity” decisionmaking. Determining a maximum level of allowable use, below which high-quality resource and experiential conditions would be sustained, was an early focus in the 1960s and 1970s. However, decades of recreation ecology research have shown that the severity and areal extent of visitor impact problems are influenced by an interrelated array of use-related, environmental, and managerial factors. This complexity, with similar findings from social science research, prompted scientists and managers to develop more comprehensive carrying capacity frameworks, including a new Visitor Use Management framework. These frameworks rely on a diverse array of management strategies and actions, often termed a “management toolbox,” for resolving visitor impact problems. This article reviews the most recent and relevant recreation ecology studies that have been applied in wildland settings to avoid or minimize resource impacts. The key findings and their management implications are highlighted to support the professional management of common trail, recreation site, and wildlife impact problems. These studies illustrate the need to select from a more diverse array of impact management strategies and actions based on an evaluation of problems to identify the most influential factors that can be manipulated.

Published March 2016

About the Author

Jeff Marion is a Federal Scientist with the US Geological Survey, and is based out of Virginia Tech as an Adjunct Professor. His research specialty is Recreation Ecology, in which he investigates the environmental impacts of visitor use in protected natural areas, primarily national parks. His research has focused on visitor impacts to trails and campsites and the development of sustainable “Best Management Practices.” He was a founding member of the Leave No Trace Board of Directors, chaired the committee that guided development of the Leave No Trace principles and practices, and authored the LNT Center’s official book “Leave No Trace in the Outdoors.”

Contact: [email protected]

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