We enjoy hiking and getting out in nature, but how can we be sure our recreation is not leading to environmental deterioration? This week on the Eco Tome, guest blogger and recreation ecologist, Ashley D’Antonio, explains how she is trying to understand how outdoor recreation affects the environment.
Where recreation ecologists spend their summer vacation
By Ashley D’Antonio
This year, 2016, is the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service. The National Park system was created to protect large swaths of land from degradation by humans so that future generations could enjoy these natural areas. However, there is something that may be disturbing the environment in our nation’s National Parks. It’s not climate change or invasive species; not fire or drought. It’s us – humans.
I spend my summers in one or more National Parks but I am not there on vacation. I am a recreation ecologist and often my visits to National Parks involve collecting data and doing research. Recreation ecology is a relatively new field that combines social science and ecological science to understand how outdoor recreation (like hiking) can sometimes cause environmental impacts. Recreation ecology research is done in places where recreation is encouraged but where natural resources are legally supposed to be protected from damage; like national parks and national forests. When people recreate outside, they have the potential to cause damage to the environment. For example, hiking off of an established trails can cause soil erosion and plants can become damaged from being trampled by the boots of hikers. If enough people hike off-trail in the same area, all of the plants in that area can die and any soil damage will make it hard for plants to ever grow back. Outdoor recreation can also impact wildlife, water quality (by introducing pollutants into the water), air quality, and the natural soundscape.
When conducting research in National Parks, some days I may not leave an individual trailhead or parking lot. Other days, I may wander all through a trail system with an antenna strapped to my back. My job is to better understand how people are using our public lands and make recommendations for how to continue to allow (and encourage) people to enjoy nature while keeping their disturbance to a minimum. Some of the basic questions that recreation ecologists are interested in asking are:
How many people are recreating in an area? To answer this question I install trail counters. These are small boxes that can be tied to trees or fences and count the number of people that pass by. Occasionally, I will also manually count people or vehicles by sitting at trailheads or in parking lots for hours at a time; noting every car or person that passes me by. Knowing how many people are out in a natural area recreating can help me understand how popular a location is and how much potential there might be for damage to the environment.
Where are people going when they recreate outdoors? To answer this question, I (politely) ask people to carry GPS units with them while they recreate. I am interested in knowing where people go when they are in the outdoors; particular when they leave established trails to wander. People have the greatest potential to cause impact to the environment when they leave established road or trails. Knowing where people go, and creating maps of the GPS tracks collected from visitors to public lands, can help me predict where impacts to the environment might occur.
What type of environments are people recreating in? To answer this question, I will often go into public lands to inventory and map the plant species that are found at popular recreation destinations (like mountain summits and lakeshores). Knowing whether someone is recreating in a meadow – where there are many grass species- or in alpine tundra – where the vegetation is very sensitive – can help me predict how much disturbance recreation may cause to that particular habitat type.
How much damage has already been caused by recreation? To answer this question, I will head out on hiking trails with a large antenna in my backpack that is attached to a very sophisticated GPS unit. I will use the GPS unit to map any disturbance that I find related to recreational activities. I record the location of the damage and the level of disturbance. This information will tell me how much damage recreation has already caused in an area and then public land managers can decide if that damage is too much.
These are not the only questions that recreation researchers and recreation ecologists are exploring but the overall goal of my research is to understand how people recreating in the outdoors influence the environment. Understanding the relationship between recreation and impact to the environment can help us insure that public lands, like National Parks, are protected so that future generations can continue to enjoy them. If you’d like to learn more about how you can minimize your impact the next time you are enjoying nature, check out the Center for Outdoor Ethic’s Leave No Trace program.
My Blog: https://theaveragevisitor.wordpress.com/ (hasn’t been updated in awhile but features other types of recreation research that is occurring)
My Website (about my research): https://ashleydantonio.weebly.com/