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

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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.

Management and Policy Implications: Wildland managers struggle to balance their resource protection and recreation provision objectives. Over the course of six decades, the recreation carrying capacity concept has been repeatedly applied and revised as a management tool, evolving from a simplistic focus on fixed visitation limits to comprehensive decisionmaking frameworks focused on sustaining high-quality recreational opportunities. Recreation ecology studies investigating relationships between amount of visitor use and the magnitude of resource impacts consistently find that use and impact are strongly related only at initial and low levels of visitation, with weak correlations at higher use levels. However, unacceptable resource impacts often occur on well-established and heavily used trails and recreation sites: reducing use to improve their condition is generally an ineffective practice. An increasing number of recreation ecology studies describe the efficacy of alternative management interventions, including the siting, design, construction, and maintenance of more sustainable trails and recreation sites, the spatial and temporal redistribution of visitor use, and persuasive communication or regulations that encourage visitors to apply low-impact practices.
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Keywords: carrying capacity; management efficacy; recreation ecology; visitor impact management; visitor use management; wilderness

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2016-05-01

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