Report – ZL3251 – Recreational Carrying Capacity

EV3251 Int

Which Factors are Involved with the Recreational Carrying

Capacity Concept in Natural Protected Areas?


As human populations increase the pressure from urban living encourage people to seek solitude with nature, the number of visitors to natural and protected areas continues to increase. Protected areas have important values in sustaining human society, especially through conserving cultural heritage. They also provide for the maintenance of representative samples of natural regions and preservation of biological diversity, and are important in protecting the environmental stability of the surrounding areas (WTO/UNEP, 1992).

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).

Carrying capacity, Recreational Opportunity Spectrum (ROS), Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC), Visitor Impact Management (VIM), Visitor Activity Management Process (VAMP) and the Tourism Optimising Management Model (TOMM) are sustainability decision-making frameworks used in protected area management (Wearing and Neil, 1999). When implemented they can help to protect a country’s natural and cultural heritage, enhance public appreciation of the recourse, and manage the conflict between resource and user (Wearing and Neil, 1999).

The carrying capacity model is an effective tool for the management of a protected area as a recreational 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 as recreational resource environments (Symmonds et al. , 2000).

This essay will discuss the concept of carrying capacity and what factors play an important role in its use.

History of the Carrying Capacity Concept

From the late 1800-hundreds until late 1960s research, planning and management efforts was concentrated to determining infrastructure and facilities in parks. The social and ecological factors were never considered (Wearing and Neil, 1999). The increasing pressure from the tourism industry to protected areas generated a need for management of ecological impacts and later also social impacts in the protected areas (Wearing and Neil, 1999). Numerous management frameworks have been developed to assist managers combating and minimising the impacts from recreational use of the natural environments e.g. ROS, LAC, VIM, VAMP and TOMM (Wearing and Neil, 1999).

The carrying capacity concept originated in the late 1970s with the central idea of ‘environmental factors set limits on the population that an area can sustain. When these limits are exceeded, the quality of the environment suffers and ultimately, its ability to support that population’ (Stankey, 1980). It was believed that the carrying capacity concept could be determined by biological studies of the natural resources of how much use the environment could cope with (Stankey, 1980). The carrying capacity analysis however, has been virtually ignored because of the complexity of its parameters. The concept’s complexity, difficulty of implementing and that it ignored the social aspects was recognised by Canada who developed a broader concept. Recreational Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) is a framework for prescribing carrying capacities and managing recreational impacts. (Stankey, 1980). The ROS approach shifted the attention from the type and amount of use to a biophysical, psychosocial and managerial attributes of the park setting (Prosser, 1986). ROS was further developed to provide a logical series of interrelated steps for natural area planning, this new concept is known as the Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) system that included the social aspects of the management as well plus it involves public participation (Prosser, 1986).

The Visitor Impact Management (VIM) process involves a combination of legislation review, scientific problem identification (both psychosocial and natural), analysis and professional judgement (Wearing and Neil, 1999). Both the VIM model and LAC system frameworks rely on indicators and standards as a means of defining impacts deemed unacceptable and place carrying capacities into a broader managerial context. However the main difference between the two, is that LAC is more emphasised on defining opportunity classes while VIM is more about planning and policy and includes identifying possible causes of impacts (Graefe et al. 1990; Wearing and Neil, 1999).

The Visitor Activity Management Process (VAMP) is built on VIM but has however shifted the emphasis back on the visitor to get a more anthropocentric and business approach (Wearing and Neil, 1999; McArthur, 2000).

Up till then scientists had failed to find support for these models. The impediments could be overcome by not using the words “impacts” and/or “limits” with in the title, which stakeholders within the tourism industry had found discouraging to economic growth and prosperity. Also the lack of involvement of stakeholders in identifying indicators and standards (McArthur, 2000). The Tourism Optimisation Management Model (TOMM) builds on the LAC system to incorporate a stronger political dimension and to be able to manage tourism in a way that seeks optimum sustainable performance considering these impediments and to involve stakeholders (Wearing and Neil, 1999). The largest difference between LAC and TOMM is that the LAC system was designed to serve a singe natural area management organisation within one land tenure, while TOMM was designed to serve a multitude of stakeholders with many interests and to be able to operate at a regional scale to satisfy multiple public and private land tenures (McArthur, 2000).

Environmental / Biological Carrying Capacity

With human use, come human impacts. One can wonder if environmental degradation of national parks affects visitors’ nature experiences. Many authors (e.g. Merriam and Smith, 1974; Helgath, 1975; Hammitt and Bixler, 1994) have found that wilderness campers rarely commented on conditions of campsites other than absence or presence of litter. Helgath (1975), Hammitt and Bixler (1994) and Chin et al. ( 2000) all 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).

In determining the environmental carrying capacity of an area one must consider (i) the size of area and useable space for example Iguazu National Park, Brazil, has 170.000Ha but only a small portion of this is actually accessible (WTO/UNEP, 1992). (ii) Fragility of the environment, some areas have very fragile soils or other features that make the environment sensitive (e.g. sand dune vegetation and alpine zones) (WTO/UNEP, 1992). (iii) Wildlife resources, carrying capacity is determined by numbers, diversity and distribution of wildlife, also variation between seasons (wet and dry / summer and winter). (iv) Vegetation cover and topography can influence the carrying capacity in the way that the bush country can conceal and buffer visitors, while in flat grasslands visitor vehicles are clearly visible (WTO/UNEP, 1992). And lastly (v) Specific behavioural sensitivity of certain animal species to human visitation, e.g. gorilla tourism in Uganda it was found a maximum of four visitor per troop per day was estimated in 1989 (WTO/UNEP, 1992).

Research have indicated that most impacts occur with the initial use, and that an increase in use causes little additional impact, creating a curve-linear relationship between impacts and numbers of visitors (Cole, 1981). E.g. heavily used campsites have been found to loose 87% of their ground cover while in the same study low use campsites have been found to loose 80% of their ground cover (Frisell & Duncan, 1965). Cole (1981) suggested that the amount of use is less important than other factors like site location and type of use. Campsites to groups using pack stock (e.g. horses) were six times larger than those only used by backpackers (Cole, 1992). Stock sites had 11 times more damaged trees, had more severely compacted soils, had lost more of their organic litter cover and had been invaded more extensively by exotic pioneer plant species (Cole, 1992).

Environmental carrying capacity concerns issues like reduction of the ground cover and plant biomass through for example trampling, replacement of species less tolerant by those more tolerant. E.g. edges of hiking tracks and campsites, a decrease in the density of herbs, shrubs and seedlings, associated soil changes such as compaction, reduction in organic matter, reduction in water infiltration rates.

Social Carrying Capacity

User satisfaction are depending on the visitors’ subjective evaluation the use levels e.g. controlling the negative impacts on the natural environment would also serve to increase the satisfaction of the visitor, as most ecotourists and nature based tourists perceive crowding as a problem (Wearing and Neil, 1999). Research indicates that reduced numbers of visitors, particular at campsites, the quality of the visitor experience tends to increase, even if fewer people are able to benefit from this (Wearing and Neil, 1999).

In East Africa’s Amboseli Game Park a redistribution of visitor use was conducted in the late 1970s where it was estimated that 90% of the visitors used 10% of the area of the park (Wearing and Neil, 1999). The redistribution technique allowed the capacity to rise from 80.000 to 250.000 visitors annually, for the same level of impact. However, this may not be desired by the ecotourist and nature based tourist hiking in wilderness areas though the area left of pristine wilderness is reduced (Wearing and Neil, 1999).

Social factors to consider when determining carrying capacity include four considerations, these include: Patterns of use – e.g. Amboseli National Park, Kenya where 90% of the use occurs in 10% of the area and 50% of the use occur between the hours of 15.30 and 18.30 (WTO/UNEP, 1992). Number of visitor opportunities for viewing , where low numbers of opportunities together with high level of use tend to create crowding e.g. the congestion around Amboseli’s three prides of lions (WTO/UNEP, 1992). Psychosocial opinions , how visitors rate the present use level of the park and their opinions about crowding (WTO/UNEP, 1992). And lastly, availability of facilities , where number of campsites/lodge beds available is the controlling factor (WTO/UNEP, 1992).

Psychosocial satisfaction of visitors in protected areas must be considered when planning and constructing a management plan for the area, where identification of resource use can conflict between different user groups. It can be a conflict not only between different social groups like locals and recreationalists e.g. westerners in Buthan influence the local culture, but also among different groups of locals. E.g. local farmers that shoot birds to keep their crops free from predation influence local birdwatchers and also between groups of recreationlists e.g. dirtbike/snowmobile users influence the experience of hikers and cross-country skiers (WTO/UNEP, 1992).

This can be managed for in the management plan through use of zoning. This is widely used to ensure that activities in one area do not impinge on planned activities of another area (Wearing and Neil, 1999).


In more and more parks and wilderness areas, the amount of use is being limited in order to control user impacts. Several scientists have suggested that managers should allocate a limited number of permits on the basis of the environmental expense of different user groups (Deluca et al. 1998). However, others suggest the opposite that permits and limits of use should be the last resort. Also, reducing visitors have little or no effect on the impacts due to the curve-linear relationship between impacts and number of visitors. Before applying limits of use, regulation on type of use, an educational program and if necessary and appropriate, site hardening and maintenance should be implemented (Cole, 1981). Cole (1981) found that a few atypically destructive parties might cause most damage on campsites.

Management objectives in protected areas stress preservation, i.e. no utilitarian use, and protection of wilderness areas in their natural condition and to minimising the evidence of human use (Cole, 1992). However, the psychosocial carrying capacity must be considered as a corner stone in the planning framework weighing as heavy as the ecological carrying capacity.


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