Do you play disc-golf? Did you ever consider your environmental impact? Back when I lived in Wisconsin, one of my closest friends was the physical education teacher at the school I worked at. At some point during our friendship he invited me to play “disc-golf” with him one day after school.  At the time I had absolutely no clue what he was asking me to do and honestly thought he was making up words. Turns out, disc-golf is an emerging recreational activity that is popular in urban natural areas such as city parks.  Disc-golf is similar to traditional golf but instead of hitting a golf ball into a hole, you throw a frisbee into a chain basket that is raised above the ground.  Like traditional golf courses, disc-golf courses will contain obstacles such as water features, trees, shrubs, etc. In 2011 there were almost 3,000 disc golf courses in the USA (including at least one disc-golf course in Wisconsin!); up from 300 in the later 1980s.  I was actually pretty terrible at disc-golf the one time that I played and most of my throws resulted in the Frisbee being stuck in the trees.

Anyway, back to the research part of this post…emerging recreational activities, like disc-golf, are particularly challenging for managers to deal with. Managers often have to make decisions about how to manage new activities without much information about the social and ecological components of the activity. Therefore, emerging recreational activities can be really interesting topics of study in the field of recreation research. Back in 2013, Yu-Fai Leung and some of his graduate students decided to examine the social and ecological aspects of managing disc-golf activities. They were interested in answering three questions: (1) How does the public perceive disc-golf as a recreational activity? (2) Is there evidence that disc-golf has environmental impacts? and (3) How can this information be used to inform the management of disc-golf?

Tossing a shot into the bucket on the disc golf course at Black Butte Lake, California

What Did They Do?

For the social part of the study, the researchers analyzed a subset of newspaper articles from a 16 year period (1995 – 2010) about disc-golf and the environment. The content of the articles was coded to identify themes related to the environmental consequence of disc-golf, health benefits, economics related to disc-golf, and social consequences of disc-golf. For the ecological part of their study the researched developed rapid assessment techniques to see if there were any noticeable ground or tree impacts that were the result of disc-golf activities at four disc-golf course in North Carolina.

What Did They Find?

The number of newspaper articles written about disc-golf increased over the 16 years; likely a reflection of the increasing popularity of disc-golf. The analysis of the newspaper articles revealed that most stories took a neutral stance related to disc-golf and were simply informative. It was not until the early 2000s that any mention of the potential negative environmental impacts of disc-golf appeared.  However, the most often mentioned topic, from all of the newspaper articles analyzed, was the social benefits of disc-golf.

Typical recreation resource impacts were observed at all disc-golf courses between the “teeing” location (tee-base) and the basket. These resource impacts included vegetation loss, soil erosion, and tree root exposure. More “disc-golf” specific impacts were also noted.  Disc-golf players would frequently cut lower branches on trees to give them a clearer area for throwing. Additionally, bark damage was observed as a result of frisbees hitting the trees.

Basket area on a disc-golf course – notice the lack of vegetation growing under and around the basket (image courtesy of Steve Ganz from Flickr).


Why Does It Matter?

The researchers note that the findings from the ecological part of the study can help inform the construction of future disc-golf courses. For example, knowing that disc-golf activities can lead to bark damage on trees, managers can plant trees with sturdier and more resistant bark.  Additionally, managers could consider rotating the location of baskets so that areas that have been highly trampled can be given time to recover.  The results from the social component of the study can help inform how managers communicate with the disc-golf community and the public. Understanding recreationists perceptions of their activity can also help guide the types of minimal-impact messages that are delivered to disc-golfers. For example, managers could emphasize to the disc-golf community that the low branches on trees provide an added challenge to the course and can help people develop their throwing skills. In this way the managers are emphasizing the benefits of disc-golf but also communicating a low-impact/best-practices message.

Final Thoughts:

The authors presented a fairly quick and simple “two-pronged approach” that allowed them to quickly evaluate both the social and ecological considerations related to an emerging activity. This approach can be easily implemented by other researchers or managers facing other emerging recreational activities (such as bouldering, snow biking, etc.). Despite some limitations in the research, such as small sample size, this is  a great approach for first examining a new recreational activity.  And I think one of the most important conclusion of the study, and as the authors point out, disc-golf may not be as low-impact of an activity as it appears.  Mangers of disc-golf courses should consider the sustainability of these courses when establishing new courses, installing obstacles,  and when placing tee-bases and baskets.


Yu-Fai Leung, Chelsey Walden-Schreiner, Craig Matisoff, Michael Naber, & & Jessica Robinson (2010). A two-pronged approach to evaluating environmental concerns of disc golf as emerging recreation in urban natural areas Managing Leisure, 18 (4)


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