My research focused on using ecological and social science to understand outdoor recreation (like hiking) and the impacts that outdoor recreation can sometimes cause to the environment (like damage to soil and plants). I use a variety of techniques to study outdoor recreation and mostly work in places like National Parks and other areas where the natural world is supposed to be protected from the impacts of people.

Basking while taking a break from mapping visitor impacts

Ecological Research:

The field I work in is known as recreation ecology. My recreation ecology research has mostly consisted of mapping where there are impacts to soil and plants from outdoor recreational activities. I locate areas where visitors to national parks and other protected areas have traveled off of the trails and potentially damaged plants and/or caused soil erosion or compacted the soil. I then measure the extent of these impacts and map their locations. I also measure and identify the plant communities in these areas of off-trail recreation use. Knowing what plant species are there and then figuring out how these plant communities may respond to recreation disturbance can help me make predictions about where future recreation impacts may occur.

Annie and I with our photo quadrat

Typical visitor impact (a visitor-created trail) in Rocky Mountain National Park

Social Science Research:

In my social science research I use two tools: visitor surveys and GPS tracking. With my social science survey work, I am most interested in understand how the types of impacts I map (like trampled vegetation or eroded soil) are viewed and judged (not may not judged) by visitors to national parks. I also try to understand what characteristics (education, knowledge of the park) a person may have that might make them more or less likely to notice and maybe be effected by impacts to plants and soil. Understanding what types of impacts may positively or negatively influence visitors in parks and protected areas can help managers of these places prioritize restoration efforts and provide better quality experiences to visitors.

Additionally, I am really interested in understanding where people go when they are recreating in national parks. To study this I use GPS units to measure people’s movements and behavior both on-trail and in off-trail areas in parks.  I can also use the data collected by the GPS units to understand how visitors are interacting with the resource impacts that I map.

Surveying visitors about their perceptions of resource impacts


Individually, each bit of my research is interesting and important to helping manage national parks and other protected areas in a sustainable way. But by integrating the social science and ecological science from my research I am able to model how visitors interact with nature. Specifically, I can use the data from the GPS units and the maps I have made from the recreation ecology work to highlight areas in a park or protected area where visitor use can potentially lead to impacts to the environment. This information can then be used by managers to make decisions about how to best manage recreation in a way that protects resources but continues to provide quality outdoor recreation experiences to visitors.

Visitors hiking off-trail in a restoration area


If you’d like to learn more about my research activities please visit my personal website.


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