What’s the value of tracking recreation in the West?

Fast-growing Western communities face a paradox of increased visitors.

 

Hartman Rocks is a popular mountain bike area just a few miles southwest of Gunnison, Colorado.

This story was originally published by KUNC and is republished here by permission.

Visitors have flocked to Western communities during the pandemic to soak in the region’s public lands. But how many visitors? While the National Park Service closely monitors visitation, national forests and the Bureau of Land Management lack an efficient and cost-effective way to measure foot traffic.

Yet that kind of information, along with data on state and local lands, is crucial for Western communities trying to balance the good and the bad of increased visitation, said Megan Lawson, an economist at Headwaters Economics. The nonpartisan research group that studies community development recently released a report recommending digital tools to collect such data.

Without accurate information on trail usage, Lawson said communities in the Mountain West face big economic roadblocks.

“Communities with a lot of public lands that are trying to develop economies around outdoor recreation have a really difficult time justifying investments that go along with that when you don’t have a great sense for how much recreation is actually occurring on public lands near these communities,” Lawson said.

Trail managers, the report says, often resort to some rather unscientific methods to monitor how many people are using trails, such as counting the number of toilet paper rolls replaced at pit toilets or the number of dog waste bags used at trailheads.

The report points to the paradox confronting fast-growing Western communities adjacent to public lands. These communities benefit from outdoor recreation in a number of ways, Lawson said. For example, people visit areas with wild open spaces, fall in love with those places, decide to move there and then help to diversify local economies when they bring their businesses with them.

At the same time, it means small Western towns are constantly struggling to keep up with the rise in population and visitors. Lawson points to impacts on roads that lack the carrying capacity to accommodate motorists driving to trailheads. The growth strains water and sewer systems. Even search and rescue teams, which are often publicly funded, are stretched thin as they respond to a heightened number of incidents, she said.

The report highlights the tools that could anchor a uniform federal system to monitor land use. Lawson says the toolbox should include social media tags, fitness tracking apps, cell phone data, and internet searches for trails.

“Academic researchers, along with our research, have demonstrated the success of these methods,” she said.

Monitoring which trails people are searching for online can also offer “pretty accurate predictions of what’s going to happen in the future” when it comes to trail use, Lawson said.

“There’s a real potential for land managers to be able to mitigate some of the impacts of those really big spikes in recreation.”

“And so there’s a real potential for land managers to be able to mitigate some of the impacts of those really big spikes in recreation.”

Still, Lawson acknowledges that using social media tools and cell phone data to build a uniform system presents privacy issues.

To address those concerns, all companies that provide data do some form of "de-identifying" so analysts cannot track individual users, Lawson said. Some strategies include reporting only aggregated measures, like if a trail exceeds, say, 75% of normal usage.

Lawson said concerns around privacy “point to the strength of using multiple novel data sources when modeling recreational use as yet another way to avoid privacy encroachment.”

Researchers at Headwaters and other organizations have also recommended improving the federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, which provides funding to communities with federal lands, so that Western towns can obtain more financial support to offset strains to infrastructure. Collecting more accurate data on the use of public lands should inform how that funding is distributed, the report says.

Robyn Vincent is a reporter for KUNC’s Mountain West News Bureau. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR AND STAFF ATTORNEY
    Friends of the San Juans' Legal Director and Staff Attorney ("Legal Director") leads our legal advocacy and litigation practice and participates in many other organizational...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....