Many are Too Many?
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.
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
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.
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 Acadias 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.
UVMs 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. Mannings
m.o. is part market research, part psychology, part computer modeling.
Today, with Ranger Jacobis 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
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 parks 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
didnt have this data, its 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 parks 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.
Mannings love for the wild owes something to a childhood spent on
Marylands 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 services recreation-safety
program. He then earned a doctorate from Michigan State University and
worked briefly for Marylands 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 fields 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 Acadias 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
dont 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 cant be all things to all
people. We dont 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 Mannings 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. Acadias 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
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 Mannings help, they hope
to figure out how to get car-loving Californians off the
Making informed choices
Mannings 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 Mannings surveys really measure social norms
relatively stable values or just fleeting preferences.
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
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
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
todays users while preserving resources for the users of tomorrow.
In the absence of a scientific understanding of people, you cant
fulfill that mission. VQ
This article is copyrighted by The Chronicle of Higher Education
and is reprinted by permission.