Report – EV5209 – Visitor Impact Management

EV5209, 2001-03-05

How to Manage Visitor Impacts in Protected Areas


The objectives of nature area management are often twofold: To protect the natural environment and to facilitate recreational use (FNNPE 1993). These two objectives are not always compatible, and in order to maintain the natural setting, it is sometimes necessary to regulate the recreational use of an area (Vorkinn, 1998).

The carrying capacity model is an effective tool for the management of a protected area recreation resource. Within the model are four primary sub-capacities, namely, physical capacity, biological capacity, social capacity and facility capacity; combined they are essential to the appropriate management of protected areas recreation resource environments (Symmonds et al. , 2000).

There are several methods that can be applied to reduce visitor impacts, both direct and indirect management actions. Direct management actions regulate the visitor behaviour, and thereby the impacts, by restricting the individual choice, for example by law enforcement. On the other hand indirect management actions tries to modify the visitor impact through physical alterations, information boards or eligibility requirements. Indirect management actions should generally be the managers first choice to acknowledge the important aspect of outdoor recreation; visitors freedom of choice (Vorkinn, 1998).

Mountain bikers perceive themselves as relatively low impact users of recreational areas and the also perceive themselves as highly supported, either by financial means or by support activities in trail maintenance (Symmonds et al. , 2000). This could be a problem for managers to persuade them to spend more money or time to such activities.

This essay will discuss users precepted impacts by other users, the actual impacts from different user groups, how to manage these impacts and how users respond to such management changes.

Users’ precepted impacts.

National Parks and wildland areas in the United States and Great Britain are preserved in part for the use and enjoyment of their citizens. This means that that the policy decisions must often be made on the basis of how to allow public use of natural ecosystems, while still protecting the integrity of the natural system (Noe et al ., 1997).

Gary Everhardt, former U.S. National Park Director, stated in 1992 that ” we need to be more sensitive to the needs of the public and how we can better accommodate them without destroying the very thing the came to experience – the nature of the park ” (Noe et al ., 1997).

One can wonder how aware park users actually are of resource / use impacts. Does different kinds of users have different awareness and perceptions of impacts?

Perceptions are often different from reality; therefore, resource managers can face a problem with the environmental education of user groups and perceptions of impacts of other user groups (Symmonds et al. , 2000). For example, people who preferred self-propelled, outdoor recreational activities such as cross-country skiing, hiking and canoeing supported management of the natural areas so that they would be maintained in an unaltered state. Persons who preferred mechanised activities e.g. snowmobiling, trail-biking and motorboating, expressed support for development of resources for recreation (Floyd et al. 1997).

In Symmonds et al. (2000) study the relative trail impacts of mountain bikers, horseback riders, walkers/hikers, and motorised vehicles were rated in a four-point scale (one = low and four = high impacts) by mountain bikers to measure their perception of themselves to other activities. Walkers were perceived as having least impact (1.6) and bikers perceived themselves as second (2.2). Horseback riders scored 2.8 and motorised vehicles was perceived as most damaging (3.4). This indicate that bikers perceive themselves to be significantly more damaging than hikers and that horseback riders and vehicle users are significantly more damaging than bikers.

Many authors (Merriam and Smith, 1974; Helgath, 1975; Hammitt and Bixler, 1994) has found that wilderness campers rarely commented on conditions of campsites other than absence or presence of litter. Helgath (1975) and Hammitt and Bixler (1994) both found that most users expressed satisfaction with trail conditions despite noticeable and severe erosion.

These findings suggest that recreationalists have high levels of acceptability and are not sensitive to environmental impacts (Floyd et al. 1997).

This means that managers and recreationalists perceptions of what is severe or noticeable impacts diverge. In many instances these impacts go unobserved by the visitor and have little influence on their experiences (Hendee and Harris, 1970; Downing and Clark, 1979; Lucas, 1979, 1980)

Roggenbuck et al. (1993) found that litter, amount of bare ground, amount of vegetation, tree damage and noise from other campers influenced perceptions of their wilderness experience. It was also found that ecological impacts were precepted as more important / severe than social impacts. Floyd et al. (1997) found that individuals with greater environmental concern were less accepting (or tolerant) of certain types of park impacts, while people with less environmental concern were more accepting to such impacts.

Actual Impacts by users.

Recreational use of mountainous terrain has increased greatly since the end of World War Two. Much of this use occurs on trail systems that both facilitate access to the mountains and reduces resource damage caused by recreation use. Over time, many trail segments deteriorate by natural processes and by wear from recreation traffic (Deluca et al. 1998).

The magnitude of trail deterioration is determined by characteristics of the trail, its environment and the recreation use of the trail (Deluca et al. 1998). It has been demonstrated that alpine areas are more susceptible to trampling damage than most other environments (Whinam & Chilcott, 1999). Deluca et al. (1998) found that the relative erosion potential of horse, llama and hiker traffic was consistent at traffic intensities of 250 and 1000 passes and on both dry and prewetted trails. This result is consistent with many earlier studies that horses tend to cause more trail erosion than hiker traffic.

Deluca et al. (1998) found that sediment yield were higher on dry trails than on prewetted trails, suggesting that dry trails are more vulnerable to sediment detachment. Levels of runoff were significantly greater on prewetted trails compared to dry trails. Traffic applied on prewetted trails resulted as an increased armouring of the trail, which increased runoff rates. Traffic applied to dry trails may increase the potential for erosion by increasing sediment detachment, whereas traffic applied to wet trails may result in increased runoff resulting in greater down slope channelling of water and greater potential for sediment transport (Deluca et al. 1998).

It has been generally demonstrated that alpine environments are more sensitive to trampling damage than most other environments. Factors which affect the rate of trampling related damage include the amount and type of use, relative resistance of vegetation types, the resilience of vegetation cover, vegetation type, soil type, local and track slope, altitude, climate, season and local drainage (Whinam & Chilcott, 1999).

Trottier and Scotter (1973) suggested that vegetation is more likely to be damage by horses and that horse trails tend to be more deeply incised than hiking trails. It has been suggested that loss of vegetation continues for some time after the trampling event, peaking days, weeks or even years after the treatment (Whinam & Chilcott, 1999).

In more and more parks and wilderness areas, amount of use limited in order to control user impacts. Several scientists have suggested that managers should allocate a limited numbers of permits on the basis of the environmental expense of different user groups (Deluca et al. 1998).

Microbial biomass is a useful ecological indicator of stress caused by anthropogenic activities (Zabinski & Gannon, 1997). Zabinski & Gannon (1997) found that, in disturbed areas e.g. campsites, none of the microbial communities were able to metabolise which suggests that bacterial and fungal components of the soil have been severely disrupted. Furthermore, the actinomycetes are thought to be important in the decomposition of more complex organic matter, and their loss in the disturbed areas suggests either the reduced presence of complex plant organic matter or a decline due to soil compaction and associated changes in soil water infiltration and O 2 concentration (Zabinski & Gannon, 1997).

Management Actions & Visitor Response to Such Changes.

It took more than 20 years of non-critical admiring of tourism before the problems became obvious and the costs of tourism development appeared in writings and debates. Among these costs hazards to the natural environment of uncontrolled mass tourism development have been pinpointed impressively (Ostrowski, 1984).

The objectives of nature area management are often twofold: To protect the natural environment and to facilitate recreational use (FNNPE 1993). These two objectives are not always compatible, and in order to maintain the natural setting, it is sometimes necessary to regulate the recreational use of an area (Vorkinn, 1998).

Visitor Impact Management (VIM) Principles were developed by U.S. National Parks and Conservation Association (1990). The purpose of VIM was and still is to identify unacceptable changes as a result of visitor use and also to develop management strategies to keep the visitor impacts within a damage threshold (Graefe et al. 1990).

VIM also recognises that science is evolving continuously and therefore VIM should be based on the “best scientific understanding and situational information available” (Graefe et al. 1990).

Graefe et al. (1990) classified visitor management strategies into two categories, Indirect and Direct. Indirect strategies are when physical alterations, information dispersal or economic constrains are put in to direct people to another area. Direct strategies are when enforcement, zoning, limit use via access point/campsite or restricting allowed activities or use times.

Vorkinn’s study (1998) suggested that visitor impacts were decreased by using a direct strategy, by restrict camping outside commercial camping grounds. This study also shows that more than 30% of the campers before the regulation was brought in ceased to camp there due to the regulations. After the regulations 54% of the campers stated that they found it less attractive to camp there. However, Vorkinn (1998) stated that a substantial number of the campers seemed to base their response on expectations on the regulations rather than actually give the commercial mountain camps a try.

The local authorities in Norway successfully fulfilled the objective of reducing camping outside the designated areas. However, the cost to some were considerable. Of the existing visitors almost a third did not stay over night in the area anymore (Vorkinn, 1998).

Whether a management action can be considered as a success when such a large proportion of the users got their outdoor recreation activities opportunities reduced, is a managerial and a political matter of judgement (Vorkinn, 1998).

Vorkinn’s study (1998) also implies that many visitors have emotional / symbolic values connected to a particular site and a substitute area with similar attributes will not be experienced as a real substitute of the visitors. Perhaps such visitors should be given great considerations.


Different trail users are not contributing equally to accelerated soil erosion. For example horse traffic is capable of causing several times worse erosion and longer lasting than equivalent amount of traffic by hikers or llamas, also horses produce greater sediment yield than hikers, bicycles or motorbikes. Trail managers may want to consider this difference when creating trail strategies (Deluca et al. , 1998; Whinam & Chilcott, 1999). Whinam & Chilcott, (1999) highlighted in their study that management actions should be taken in fragile alpine/sub-alpine environments before the thresholds are reached.

Individuals with high degree of environmental concern were found to have lower tolerance than individuals with low degree of environmental concern (Floyd et al. , 1997). Floyd et al. (1997) suggested that managers has even lower threshold than the environmental concerned visitor.

References :

Deluca, T.H., Patterson IV, W.A., Freimund, W.A., Cole, D.N. (1998) Influence of Llamas, Horses and Hikers on Soil Erosion from Established Recreation Trails in Western Montana, USA. Environmental Management Vol. 22 , No. 2, pp. 255-262.

Downing, K. and Clark, R.N. (1979) User’s and managers’ perceptions of dispersed recreation impacts: A focus on roaded forest lands. pp. 18-23 In Proceedings of the Wildland Recreation Impacts Conference . USDA Forest Service, USDA National Park Service.

Floyd, M.F., Jang, H. & Noe, F.P. (1997) The Relationship between Environmental Concern and Acceptability of Environmental Impacts among Visitors to Two U.S. National Park Settings. Journal of Environmental Management vol. 51 , pp. 391-412.

FNNPE (Federation of Nature and National Parks of Europe). (1993) Loving them to death? Sustainable tourism in Europe’s nature and national parks. Report from the Federation Working Group. Grafebau, Germany.

Graefe, A.R., Kuss, F.R., & Vaske, J.J. (1990) Visitor Imapact Management – The Planning Framework . National Parks and Conservation Association, Washington, D.C. U.S.A.

Hammitt, W.E. and Bixler, R.D. (1994) Visitor Perception of Impacts at Three National Parks . Final Report to the Southeast Region of the USDI National Park Service.

Helgath, S.F. (1975) Trail Detoriation in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness . USDA Forest Service Research Note.

Hendee, J.C. and Harris, R.W. (1970) Foresters’ perceptions of wilderness-users attitudes and preferences. Journal of Forestry vol. 68 , 759-762.

Lucas, R.C. (1979) Perceptions of non-motorised recreational impacts: A review of research findings. pp. 24-31 In Perceedings of the Wildland Recreation Impacts Conference . USDA Forest Service, USDI National Park Service.

Lucas, R.C. (1980) Use Patterns and Visitor Characteristics, Attitudes and Preference in Nine Wilderness and Other Roadless Areas . USDA Forest Service Research Paper.

Merriam, L.C. and Smith, C.K. (1974) Visitor Impacts on Newly developed campsites in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Journal of Forestry vol. 72 , 627-630.

Noe, F.P., Hammitt, W.E. and Bixler, R.D. (1997) Park User Perceptions of Resource and Use Impacts Under Varied Situations in Three National Parks. Journal of Environmental Management vol. 49 , pp. 323-336.

Ostrowski, S. (1984) Tourism in Protected Areas – The Case of Poland. Tourism Management June issue. Pp. 118-122.

Roggenbuck, J.W., Williams, D.R. and Watson, A.E. (1993) Defining acceptable conditions in wilderness. Environmental Management vol. 17 , pp. 187-197.

Symmonds, M.C., Hammitt, W.E. & Quisenberry, V.L. (2000) Managing Recreational Trail Environments for Mountain Bike User Preferences. Environmental Management vol. 25 , No. 5, pp 549-564.

Trottier, G.C. & Scotter, G.W. (1973) A survey of back country use and the resulting impact near Lake Louise, Banff National Park. Canadian Wildlife Serivice, Edminton, Alberta

Vorkinn, M. (1998) Visitor Response to Management Regulations – A Study Among Recreationalists in Southern Norway. Environmental Management vol. 22 , No. 5, pp 737-746.

Whinam, J. & Chilcott, N. (1999) Impacts of trampling on alpine eenvironments in central Tasmania. Journal of Environmental Management vol. 57 , pp. 205-220.

Zabinski, C.A. & Gannon, J.E. (1997) Effects of Recreational Impacts on Soil Microbial Communities. Environmental Management vol. 21 , No. 2, pp. 233-238.

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