Recreation vs. Conservation in National Parks: Will Enjoyment Equal Support?

Candice Gaukel Andrews April 19, 2016 23
Is it time to re-examine the “enjoyment equals support” equation and to encourage outdoor recreationists to feel welcome in our public lands? ©Bureau of Land Management

Is it time to re-examine the “enjoyment equals support” equation and to encourage outdoor recreationists to feel welcome in our public lands? ©Bureau of Land Management

When President Woodrow Wilson signed the act creating the National Park Service on August 25, 1916, I doubt he anticipated that one of the statute’s words would cause a lot of controversy 100 years later. The Organic Act of 1916 states that the purpose of the service “in areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations” is to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The contentious word is “enjoyment.”

What’s right for the land should be the determining factor when considering any use of it. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

What’s right for the land should be the determining factor when considering any use of it. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

In 1916, ATVs, personal drones, exercise boot camps, mountain bikes, snowmobiles and wingsuits weren’t commonplace. Today, however, such popular outdoor activities and pursuits are pitting recreationists against traditional conservationists, who would prefer to restrict such pastimes and hobbies in national parks in order, they say, to protect the land.

Some avid recreationists believe that the conservation movement is mostly made up of aging baby boomers who think the only legitimate way to experience nature is by hiking at a leisurely pace, keeping recreationists from enjoying our public lands in the manner they prefer.

Is it time to rethink the term “enjoyment” as it applies to our national parks?

A SHIFT in thinking

According to SHIFT (Shifting How we Invest For Tomorrow), an organization that hopes to unite recreationists and conservationists around the common goal of protecting public lands: “Today, with the membership of traditional conservation organizations aging, outdoor recreation offers a remarkable opportunity to reinvigorate the protection of our public lands and waters—but only if the next generation of stewards is able to engage with them in the first place.”

Will baby boomers be able to accept new, different ways of experiencing nature? ©U.S. Army

Will baby boomers be able to accept new, different ways of experiencing nature? ©U.S. Army

To that end, groups of recreationists are already engaged in attempts to change laws that restrict their chosen activities on protected lands. For example, the Sustainable Trails Coalition is lobbying for a new bill that would amend the 1964 Wilderness Act to give local forest supervisors the discretion to open wilderness trails to mountain bikers.

What particularly irks some recreationists is the high horse that conservationists tend to ride. Activities such as bird-watching, cross-country skiing and hiking can negatively affect the environment, too. According to a February 13, 2015, article in The New York Times, “In 2008 Sarah Reed, an associate conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, and her colleagues found fivefold declines in detections of bobcats, coyotes and other midsize carnivores in protected areas in California that allowed quiet recreation activities like hiking, compared with protected areas that prohibited those activities.

“In a not-yet-published review of 218 studies about recreation’s impacts on wildlife, researchers found more evidence of impacts by hikers, backcountry skiers and their like than by the gas-powered contingent.”

A swing toward selfishness

Against recent attacks on public lands, a strong coalition is needed. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Against recent attacks on public lands, a strong coalition is needed. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

For their part, however, some conservationists say that this new trend by organized groups of recreationists to try to change laws to accommodate their avocations is simply selfish. A case in point is in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. In 2014, packrafters helped pass a law ordering the two parks to do a feasibility study of recreational paddling. Conservationists, fearing that legislating special access to a national park by a specific user group would set a bad precedent, opposed the ordinance. Such recreationists, say their critics, are focused on doing what they want, where they want. If they don’t get their way, they charge discrimination rather than question whether more for them is really what’s right for the land.

I suppose I could fit into that stereotype of the aging baby boomer who wants to preserve some natural places for “hiking at a leisurely pace.” But I also wouldn’t mind packrafting down a river if it could get me into a spot I wanted to see and couldn’t get to by any other means. So contrary to the cliché, I do believe that outdoor recreationists should also be allowed their enjoyments and that they could become powerful partners in the current struggle to preserve public lands.

Do you think we will we need to open up our national parks for more types of recreational pursuits in order to engage the next generation in conservation and environmentalism?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Andrew Smith May 26, 2016 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    Land management decisions are made by people, so in the end it is the choice of the people that will decide what is acceptable and whats not. There are many right answers to land management issues, and the stakeholders, community, scientists all contribute to which right answer is adopted. Never the less the natural and cultural values of the reserve should be the foundation and bedrock for those decisions.

  2. Stephen England May 26, 2016 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    National Parks are one of the great ideas, I love’em. We are probably loving these treasures to death and the percent of urban dwellers using them is minimal. Playgrounds are also a great idea. Parks in cities great idea. Conservation is a great idea. Resource management is a great idea. Who pays, who uses, who benefits. Carrying capacity, accessibility, safety, we could put more in to the equation another day. Bottom line given persistent economic issues, growing hunger, health care and educational issues; do we dare put such a luxury to a vote. Would the people that are paying for these public lands vote for the expense or better health care?

  3. Bruce Ward May 26, 2016 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    With increasing concerns over “nature deficit disorder” we should be doing all we can to encourage all forms of outdoor recreation.

  4. Dr. Nana Osei Bonsu May 26, 2016 at 4:44 pm - Reply

    The argument/conflicting demands about Recreation vs. Nature Conservation (in public lands) is also borne down to how stakeholders/interest groups are involved in land-use decision-making processes. Also, once there’s a joint decision making approach, a management paradigm following either a segregative or integrative management approach could be established at the landscape level, hence, helping address the conflicting demands. Moreover, it’s not always about the ecological values attached to conservation, but also the potential benefits of the socio-cultural aspects of land-use.

  5. Scott Lenton May 26, 2016 at 4:43 pm - Reply

    The argument about impact on reserved natural estate land has to be more complex than comparing recreationists with conservationists. The commercialisation of parks by the managing agency also has much to answer for in promoting much higher use and impact. The provision of infrastructure (roads, sanitary systems, buildings, electricity, fire breaks, etc) alone has high impact on the natural environment. In addition, by building up the infrastructure and making reserve space more user-friendly (at least for the less active users) there is a huge change to carrying capacity. However, while management of these extra users is intense in the highly modified and regulated zone of a reserve the management of users who venture out of the zone is often less active then it should be.

    I don’t believe there is an issue with the word ‘enjoyment’ at all if the word is read, as it was intended to be read, in context with all the other words around it. To me the issue with reserve estate management and impacts is that at times the managing agency seeks to cash in on the commercial opportunity, this drives up use and impacts. Maybe it isn’t the recreationists and conservationists who are having the greatest impact?

  6. Glenn May 22, 2016 at 1:02 pm - Reply

    I must admit I’m irked that this conversation is always framed from a recreationist’s stand-point. The question always seems to be hiking and other soft recreation versus recreation involving motorized vehicles of various types. The wilderness act restricts hard recreation and motorized recreation because it is impactful on the land, where man is supposed to have no permanent impact. Hiking is decidedly less impactful than say riding a mountain bike, because mountain bikes tear up the treadway of trails and encourage erosion, due to the higher velocity and thus force of their movement. This can be devastating to sensitive habitats… More so than just walking. There is also the argument to be made that cities provide space for loud recreation, but people also need quiet places to go… But this debate, while I am on the soft recreation side, misses the larger point.

    All recreation comes with impacts. Hikers leave behind micro-trash and human waste, they compact the soil, they leave trees without lower branches to provide fire and they scar the vegetation where tents are laid for camping. All recreation has impacts, and most forested ecosystems have a certain level of resilience that the large degree of recreation is pushing past its limits. These places are the last vestiges of wildlife habitat and we are encroaching ever more, for petty reasons like flying drones or waterskiing, things we could do elsewhere, where they are already done. There should be those places where no trail leads, where man is not even a visitor.

  7. Jean Dunoyer May 18, 2016 at 8:26 am - Reply

    The National Park Service oversees 40 miles of coastline with the Cape Cod National Seashore. A few years ago Superintendent George Price banned all kiteboarding anywhere on the shore, claiming that we are bother to shore birds and visitors. There is no evidence to show this, and kiteboarders’ presence there is very occasional.

  8. Ashis Gharai May 9, 2016 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    The argument continues….I believe there is a very thin line between creating too many options of recreation and addressing far more critical conservation issues in a wildlife habitat. Come to would see far more pathetic examples (of course there are rare exemplary management practices too!) of the same. A fine balance is always difficult to create, but responsible tourism and recreation must be of equal importance for the ‘beneficiary’ too, park managers can’t always be held responsible!

  9. Chris Jenkins May 9, 2016 at 2:57 pm - Reply

    I can see a possible way forward.

    A few decades ago USDA (Forest Service) social scientists developed some simple techniques to help manage recreation in wild areas.

    There was the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) technique that helped to identify the opportunities and (and potential conflicts) between different types of recreationalist.

    Then a few years later the Limits to Acceptable Change (LAC) approach was developed that allowed a social process for defining use and acceptable impacts

    These techniques while developed some time ago are (in my opinion) still sound approaches as they allow people to engage in discussion on impacts and use by developing a common understanding and modeling impacts. These type of approaches reduce the risk of users and communities “talking past each other” and instead encourages them to sit down and really understand what each other wants and what this means. Such approaches hold the potential to resolve a lot of recreation use/user conflict.

  10. Steve Madewell May 5, 2016 at 4:04 pm - Reply

    Carrying capacity for a quality experience is a critical issue and it doesn’t matter if it is foot traffic, single track, fishing, hunting, ATV’S whatever recreational pursuit… We have a bit of a handle in use management, albeit, as mentioned above sometimes condencending, other times confrontational based off of ecological impacts, but for the most part in the States we have just begun to attempt addressing social carrying capacity. Often times is it more is better which is really the lowest common denominator. This paradigm shift will have to come from/be driven by recreational users not the ecologist.

  11. Tom Blackbird May 5, 2016 at 4:03 pm - Reply

    I agree with all of the points raised here. I have recently been researching a project along these lines and the dual mandates of Recreation and Conservation are at times very conflicting. What takes precedence and who sets that precedence is the underlying answers I have been coming up with. Politics should be left out the equation and not bend to the groups who push to have a certain thing done knowing it will impact the natural environment. Far to often people are becoming more accepting of the impact to say we will compensate over here to replace what we lost. Not always that easy because if it were to function the exact same it would have been there already.
    The noise pollution is another aspect that continues to grow as the types of machines are constantly evolving and becoming more accessible to more people. This results in the increased numbers of people pushing back farther and farther into areas that were once left untouched.

    Another point that I do not see but is an underlying issue that never gets addressed is carrying capacity. Random number get tossed around but setting the maximum limits on an area is incredibly hard to do and there is not much appetite for managers to impose and then enforce for the long term.

  12. James Okware May 4, 2016 at 8:27 am - Reply

    We need to accept that we are managing these resources for the benefit of Mankind to day and for generations to come. What is important in the use of the resources should sustainable and most importantly should not destroy the goods and services produced by this resources.

  13. Andrew Smith May 4, 2016 at 8:27 am - Reply

    Reserved land management is all about managing the impacts of users, because the aim of reserves is to protect the natural and cultural values they possess. If values management is done well, we end up with a product that is also attractive to people, and we therefore need to evaluate and manage how people will access and enjoy reserves. Some places, at some level, can handle motorized access, some can’t. That applies to all forms of access/recreation. Spear fisherman are not allowed to spear fish in marine parks, hunters aren’t allowed to shoot wildlife in National Parks (here at least), ATVs aren’t able to access fragile beach dunes or run over Aboriginal middens, walkers aren’t able to free roam in areas if plant disease might be spread by their access. Commercial activities are also possible, particularly eco-tourism, as long as they don’t impact the natural and cultural values. All of these also have to be balanced against the impact on others.

  14. Leland Brun May 2, 2016 at 2:05 pm - Reply

    I question the notion that the modern recreationist has less of an impact than the back country hiker. It is likely that the recreationist gets his or her kicks closer to the more public areas of the park whereas the hiker does have some small impact in the back country. However if this notion gains ground and more access is granted to the recreationist, the impact will be far greater as more people access the back country.

  15. Faerthen Felix May 2, 2016 at 5:40 am - Reply

    1. Parks do not exist to provide economic opportunity to commercial interests. Keeping them limited in the Parks encourages these businesses to develop their offerings in other areas; in so doing, they help take pressure off the parks.
    2. Motors won’t share. Outside the National Parks, it is disingenuous to deny that out-of-control motorized recreation is destroying opportunities for quiet non-motorized recreation on public land. There is virtually no enforcement, even in most motorized closure areas. Multiple-use means motorized use, that’s all. The National Parks are one of the only places that users stand a chance of recreating without dealing with motors.
    3. The world is not big enough if everyone has a motor. Motors increase a user’s footprint a hundred-fold. As population increases, motors are going to be constrained, period. There’s no other choice. It’s the same situation as every city on the planet. Why wait until the pain increases dramatically to try to deal with it?

  16. Bruce Ward May 2, 2016 at 5:38 am - Reply

    So true: What particularly irks some recreationists is the high horse that conservationists tend to ride.

  17. Ruben Cantu May 2, 2016 at 5:38 am - Reply

    Hence the difficulty in addressing the multiple use concept that public lands have to deal with daily. How do we balance the needs of all people and or user groups on lands that belong to all people? Its not an easy task, but IMO the answer will come down first to, or should in my view, conserving the natural resources of the property, i.e. animals, plants, soils.

  18. ffelix May 1, 2016 at 5:09 pm - Reply

    So, once we open National Parks to motorized recreation, where can one go to be away from the irritation of internal combustion for a few precious hours? National Forest? No. BLM land? No. Cities? God, no.

    Quiet is one of the only values offered exclusively by National Parks, and it is rare even there. Yosemite Valley is as loud as a large city.

  19. Deb Kulcsar April 28, 2016 at 11:23 am - Reply

    Thanks for the interesting article. It’s a dilemma. Until I see the research I am skeptical that human steps have a greater impact than ATV tire tread. When the automobile was introduced in this country Wilderness, or place of wild beasts, had a lot to lose, and it’s still losing. Read “Wilderness and the American Mind” by Roderick Nash.

  20. Ed Mankelow April 28, 2016 at 11:20 am - Reply

    Let us separate Recreation from “Commercial Recreation”. Commercial Recreation has no business within our protected park systems, National or Provincial. Once established Commercial operations always find they need to expand. That’s what business is all about. Our national park system is an example of this.

  21. James "Jim" Brown April 28, 2016 at 11:19 am - Reply

    Parks serve both needs. As does my agency as we struggle with changing demographics, changing user groups and their demands, and increasing population equating to higher visitor counts. No easy answers. But we shouldn’t jump to discounting entire classifications of recreation, as the taxpayers we serve come from all walks. And studies have shown that many wildlife react less to momentary passing of vehicles vs the skier or snowshoer that is coming and going by over a much longer time of exposure. We need to involve those user groups in helping us manage their impacts. Buy-in is the only way to get control over problems. You can’t just regulate your way out of it unless you lock it all up under glass and keep people out.

  22. Kathryn Papp April 24, 2016 at 11:17 am - Reply

    A hiker, skier, biker, kayaker, bird watcher etc etc are not without some degree of disruptive presence … no matter where they are.
    But the effect becomes more profound when these activities occur in the landscapes and spaces of other animals. Or say, in places where nonhuman animals live and eat and care for their offspring.

    Nonhuman animals cannot just pick up and trot off to the grocery store to find a sure food supply, or lock the doors to keep their offspring safe from intruders, or find a mate by getting on the computer.

    Different behaviors … different needs … whose counts more? Recreationists wide and widely available choices, or animals and plants much stricter survival needs? There’s a choice here … fun or extinction.

  23. Patrick Labelle April 22, 2016 at 6:41 pm - Reply

    yes, but not intensively

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