That is what I asked myself when I first learned about this field of research. “So, you’re saying that there is a field of science that will pay me to hike around in National Parks and collect data about recreation?”. It sounded too good to be true. Recreation ecologists do not only work in National Parks of course, but based on the legal, dual mandate of the Park Service to both provide opportunities for visitors while also protecting natural and cultural resources, the National Park Service has a vested interest in recreation ecology research. Recreation ecology studies can occur in any setting where recreation is occuring: such as National Forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, National Monuments, and even local parks or preserves. Although many people have recreated on the types of lands where recreation ecology research occurs, few people have even heard of recreation ecology.
Recreation ecology as a field is fairly young. The earliest studies date back to the 1920s, however these were informal and the field was not well established until many years later. It was during the 1970s that recreation ecology began to cement itself as an important area of research as far as managing wildlands was concerned. The earliest studies in recreation ecology were experimental studies that mostly involved torturing plants; Bayfield conducted the first trampling study in 1973 in Scotland. Trampling studies are a staple in recreation ecology research and they give researchers an understanding of how vegetation responds to be stepped on over and over and over again. The point is to simulate visitors hiking on vegetation and see how the plants respond – does it die? how long does it take to grow back?. Other trampling studies started to occur in 1975 in Great Britain and Australia by a researcher named Liddle and in the United States, Dave Cole, conducted his first trampling study in 1978. In 1987 the first textbook on recreation ecology was published by Hammitt and Cole; “Wildland Recreation: Ecology and Management”. The book has become the closest thing to a recreation ecologist’s bible.
By the 1980s and 1990s there was a significant increase in the number of recreation ecology studies being conducted. However, no one was really calling themselves a “recreation ecologist”. Most scientists would conduct one study that could be considered recreation ecology and then move on to something else. Only recently have a few researchers established themselves by focusing solely on recreation ecology research. As with most young fields of science, recreation ecology research has been dominated by descriptive studies. The field has very little theory, really only one concept that can really be considered “theory”, and the research has been very narrow in terms of scope and scale.
Most recreation ecology research has focused on the impacts of recreation on vegetation and soil. Very few studies have been conducted on water and wildlife. There are many factors contributing to this, including availability of funding, but also the fact that methodologies to study vegetation and soil are well established. Wildlife studies were popular for awhile and are still occasionally conducted – however, researchers were having trouble establishing whether or not recreation could have a long-term impact on wildlife populations. So what if elk flee from cross-country skiers in Yellowstone? Does that really effect their overall survival or reproductive success? The “so what?” question is harder to answer with wildlife and water than with vegetation.
Scale has also been an issue in recreation ecology. Most studies are conducted at the human scare since recreation ecology research is designed to directly contribute to monitoring and managing visitor impacts. However, there are opportunities for studies to be scaled up (or down for that matter, in terms of studying soil or aquatic biota). The fact that recreation ecology research is supposed to directly influence management decisions has not only influenced the scale of the studies but has also led to the slow development of theory. Managers have little money for studies where the sole purpose is to examine conceptual topics and test theory. Recreation ecology is supposed to be highly applicable to managers of parks and protected areas; but a researcher is able to sneak in a trampling study every now and then.
Theory has well been established in the social sciences however, and more recently recreation ecology has become an interdisciplinary field borrowing from other sciences. Recreation impacts are caused by visitors and managers are expected to influence visitor behaviors and understand visitor preferences. In a way, the visitors are the managers clientele and managers are expected to meet their clients’ needs. Although recreation ecology studies can describe and explain ecological impacts, it traditionally has not explored how visitors view or interact with these impacts. More and more recreation ecologist are teaming up with social scientists to explore how visitors interact and view recreation impacts.
Recreation ecology is a new field (it’s actually not that much older than I am!) with many constraints (funding, few recreation ecologists, few theories). However, these constraints mean that there is plenty of room for growth! Each new study in recreation ecology is a giant leap forward in understanding how visitors impact the environment and in the development of methodologies to study recreation impacts.
A friend of mine who did research in Hawaii for his masters subtitled his defense “My field site is better than yours” – I was tempted to argue with him. Recreation ecology provides you with views like these:
Most of this information comes from a chapter on environmental impacts by David Cole.
Cole DN (2004) Environmental impacts of outdoor recreation in wildlands. In: Manfredo MJ, Vaske JJ, Bruyere BL, Field DR, Brown PJ (eds) Society and natural resources: a summary of knowledge. Modern Litho, Jefferson, MO, pp 107–126