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Summer 2001


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How Many are Too Many?

On a late August morning in Acadia National Park, the masses swarm the roads that Rockefeller built. Lean cyclists wearing neon spandex and grim expressions speed around young families on rentals. Middle-aged pedestrians stroll cautiously and stick to the edge of the paths.

At one particularly busy intersection, Charlie Jacobi, a mustachioed park ranger, tries to keep order. Cyclists regularly skid in a gravel patch; he bellows at them to slow down. But he is not there to play traffic cop. These are his customers, and he is here to take the measure of their satisfaction.
Acadia does not boast unique geological features or unusual wildlife. But the landscaped trails that John D. Rockefeller Jr. built for carriage rides by the well-to-do are increasingly popular with day-trippers from Augusta, Maine, and beyond, who come to enjoy nature and get a little exercise.
Acadia is finding that popularity has its costs. Not so much to flora, fauna, or terra, all of which are pretty hardy around here, but to something more ephemeral: human enjoyment.
Congress has saddled the National Park Service with a paradoxical task: Preserve the United States’ natural resources for the enjoyment of its citizens. But as those parks attract more recreational users — nearly 300 million each year — it has proved more difficult to preserve both the natural resources and the enjoyment.
Now that Acadia’s patronage tops three million visits per year, says Robert Manning, UVM professor of natural resources management, the pressing question is “how many can visit before ecological integrity is threatened or the experience of the visitors is threatened?” Thanks to decades of work by biologists and other scientists, Jacobi and his park-service colleagues know a lot about the ecological risks of human encroachment. But they know far less about the second part of their charge.
UVM’s Manning is one of a handful of social scientists who work with park managers to measure what visitors want from the park and how much human contact they are willing to tolerate. Park managers are looking for two kinds of information: how many visitors they can comfortably accommodate at one time, and how they can get visitors to change behavior that detracts from others’ enjoyment.
How many are too many?
Acadia called Manning in after it began receiving complaints from visitors on foot about the behavior of bicyclists on the roads. Manning’s m.o. is part market research, part psychology, part computer modeling. Today, with Ranger Jacobi’s help, he flags down visitors at random and quizzes them on their experience at the park. First, two moms from Connecticut with their four kids. Next, an older couple from New York City: What do you do in Acadia? Are you bothered by cyclists riding too fast or passing from behind without warning? By dogs let off their leashes? By visitors blocking the road?
Then he shows each visitor a collage of photographs depicting the same stretch of road in Acadia. The photos differ only in the number of park visitors populating them — from none to thirty-plus. How many “people per view” would you find acceptable? What is the most others would tolerate?
Based on the answers he has collected so far, Manning used a computer model to calculate that Acadia can accommodate about three thousand visitors per day before many will feel their experience is degraded. That is good news: The park’s daily head count rarely exceeds that, even in the peak of summer. Managers now live by a new benchmark: If the number of daily visitors ever exceeds three thousand more than sixteen times a summer, then they will have to respond.
Studying the tourist in the wild
Park managers juggle many factors in the stewardship of the parks, says Manning, including visitors’ effect on the environment. But without the sort of information that social science can provide, they may be too quick to respond to anecdotal complaints or political pressure. “Managers tend to be much more sensitive to resource impacts and crowding,” he says. “They tend to want fewer people in the parks, and if they didn’t have this data, it’s my guess that the parks would be managed for lower use.”
Increasingly, park managers are welcoming Manning and scholars doing similar work. Those scholars leaven their number-crunching with a little psychology. “You have to undersand what people bring with them,” says Stephen McCool, a professor of wild-land recreation management at the University of Montana. His research, for instance, found that people ignored rules about safety and courtesy posted at trailheads. It is much more effective to put them up the trail a ways, he says, where there are fewer distractions.
Empirical data also allow park managers to justify sound but unpopular decisions. Jerry Vaske, a professor
of natural-resources management at Colorado State University, recalls that the staff at the Mt. Evans Wilderness Area, in Colorado, were asked to change the park’s zoning after a horrified family driving through a hunting zone watched as a wounded bighorn sheep bled to death by the side of the road. Research showed that such events were exceedingly rare, so staff were emboldened to retain the zoning.
Jogging memories
Manning’s love for the wild owes something to a childhood spent on Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore. He was on active duty in the Coast Guard around 1970, however, when he first got involved in recreation management. Stationed in San Francisco, he was asked to run the service’s recreation-safety program. He then earned a doctorate from Michigan State University and worked briefly for Maryland’s natural resources department. But UVM lured him back into research in 1976, and he soon became interested in quantifying the level of visitor satisfaction in national parks.
The field’s techniques were primitive. Originally, scholars were interested in the “backcountry,” which was sparsely used. Since hikers encountered few other people in a typical day, their estimates of such contact were reliable. When scholars’ focus shifted a decade or so ago to areas of heavy use, like Acadia’s roads, visitors had trouble recalling their impressions of how heavily the park was being used, or of what they preferred. So Manning came up with the idea of developing photographic cues to supplement his questionnaires.
More and more parks like Acadia are using these techniques to create a sort of early-warning system for visitor dissatisfaction. But managers don’t pretend they can keep everyone happy. “There are folks who would like to see fewer visitors, or see bikes banned from the park,” says Jacobi, the park ranger. “We can’t be all things to all people. We don’t expect people to find a large amount of solitude on the carriage roads.”
Limiting visitors’ access to any park is widely regarded as a last, and controversial, resort. Armed with the researchers’ data, park managers can try instead to educate visitors about the most crowded times and places, so
that people who desire more solitude will know how to find it.
Do Manning’s methods lead parks to pander to the “average visitor”? No, he says, because there is no such thing. For example, his surveys in Acadia have revealed two distinct groups of visitors: pedestrians, generally local residents, who prefer quieter roads and have complained the most about the growth in visitors; and bicyclists, generally out-of-towners, who like the roads just fine. Acadia’s solution: Divide the carriage roads into two zones, for high use and low use.
Surveys like the ones Manning has developed are being used more and more often. The manager of Alcatraz Island, a former federal prison in San Francisco Bay now operated as a tourist attraction, asked Manning to figure out how many visitors they can accommodate in the cellblocks without inducing claustrophobia.
Manning also has helped Yosemite National Park, where the high volume of camper traffic through the main valley occasionally causes gridlock. Managers there recently considered — and rejected — banning cars and forcing everyone into buses. With Manning’s help, they hope
to figure out how to get car-loving Californians off the
worst roads.
Making informed choices
Manning’s system for evaluating visitors’ experience — there are several others — received a test run at Arches National Park, in Utah. His research found that visitors felt views of spectacular rock monuments were marred by overcrowding. He also used the photo technique to evaluate how much degradation of the terrain visitors would tolerate.
Critics question whether such research really accomplishes what Manning and others say it does. For one thing, says David Cole, a research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, the survey questions do not present visitors with the same sort of tradeoffs between access and solitude that park staff have to make. “Do people really have enough information to play manager for a day?” he asks.
Furthermore, he says, the survey respondents are not really a random sample. Those who did not like their first experiences at a park and did not come back are, by definition, excluded from the survey. Lastly, he disputes whether Manning’s surveys really measure “social norms” — relatively stable values — or just fleeting preferences.
Social Influences
In response, Manning says that park surveys are becoming more curious about the social influences that lead visitors to prefer different experiences. Studies have shown, for instance, that urban residents are more tolerant of crowding in the parks, and that black people are significantly
less likely to visit parks than other major racial or
ethnic groups.
He also acknowledges that “displaced” users are difficult to measure and that his respondents tend to express a high degree of satisfaction with the parks. But he notes that scholars do sometimes reach those dissatisfied visitors.
In Acadia, for instance, he surveyed local residents, whose complaints about visitors’ behavior led to his study. He found that only 7 percent of townsfolk stayed off the carriage roads. To avoid the two-wheeled interlopers, many others have simply changed their habits. They came early in the morning or visited Acadia mainly in the off-peak months of spring and fall. Some sought solitude elsewhere, in parks better suited for it.
In other words, many had already figured out that the park system offers a “diversity of experience.” And the parks would rather get visitors to change their habits than bar anyone at the door.
The park service hopes to encourage visitors to patronize parks at off-peak hours by posting that information on the Internet, because a recent nationwide survey of Americans revealed that 35 percent of prospective visitors to the parks go online to plan their trip. And they may target retirees, whose vacation schedules tend to be more flexible.
Social-science research is likely to exert a growing influence on the National Park Service. Just two years ago, Congress mandated that parks base their management of resources on “science.” Although that forces park managers to collect more information before making decisions, it also shields them from outside interference.
“The management of parks is, in essence, the management of people,” says Gary Machlis, the visiting chief social scientist of the National Park Service and a professor of forest resources at the University of Idaho. “The parks have an awesome challenge: Provide enjoyment for today’s users while preserving resources for the users of tomorrow. In the absence of a scientific understanding of people, you can’t fulfill that mission.” VQ
—This article is copyrighted by The Chronicle of Higher Education and is reprinted by permission.

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