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Out of the Park

Robert Manning's latest book is a critical hit that sums up decades of careful thinking about using and managing public recreation areas

By Jeff Wakefield Article published September 19, 2007

Robert Manning
Outdoor expert: Professor Robert Manning, shown here at Mt. Philo State Park, helps the National Park Service develop science-based plans for managing visitors. (Photo: Sally McCay)

Keeping up with Robert Manning, even on a short stroll from campus to the waterfront, is an intimidating prospect.

Forget that Manning, a professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and director of the school’s recreation management program, is a competitive marathoner with the lean frame to prove it.

Walking is not only central to Manning’s scholarship, it’s also a hobby of, well, wide-ranging proportion.

For nearly 30 years Manning has helped the National Park Service develop research-based management plans designed to give the public access to the parks without overrunning their natural beauty.

But when his work is done, Manning isn't above yielding to the temptations of his surroundings. After a project at John Muir Woods near San Francisco this summer, for instance, Manning and his wife hiked the Tahoe Rim Trail, a 165-mile jaunt that lasted 11 days. After a conference at the end of the summer, the couple also walked the Kungsleden Trail above the Arctic Circle in Sweden, a nine-day hike.

While Manning unabashedly enjoys the setting of his scholarship, the end products of his work are delivering even more satisfaction than usual recently. This year, the park service formally incorporated the planning approach he played a major role in devising in 1992, the "Visitor Experience and Resource Protection Framework," into its park management guidelines, requiring all 391 parks in the system to use it.

He also published a capstone book to rave reviews, Parks and Carrying Capacity: Commons Without Tragedy, synthesizing several dozen scholarly papers he’s published over the years. Choice magazine called it an “indispensable resource for researchers and professionals in the field.”

Beyond crowding
It turns out that the Burlington waterfront, which Manning has agreed to observe for the benefit of a reporter, is as good a location as any to understand the challenges of managing an iconic public space like a national park.

On a cloudless mid-week summer morning, the boardwalk is nearly empty. But a typical summer weekend will bring an unruly mix of casual strollers, joggers, roller-bladers, bikers and dog-walkers to the two paved paths that loop the area.

“We often talk about how the parks are crowded,” Manning says. But, like the waterfront, “the use of parks follows this extreme peaking phenomenon." That is, the areas are packed at times, almost empty at others. Complicating matters further, often problems result not from the numbers of people, but the conflict of uses — for instance, among hikers and cyclists on the carriage roads in Acadia National Park, where Manning has worked for years.

The way to address these issues, Manning has learned, is to ask park visitors what’s important to them about their experience, and then, for each of these key factors, determine at what point discomfort or inconvenience becomes unacceptable.

Sometimes this can be done in an interview, but often Manning uses a trademark trick — showing visitors a sequence of doctored photos with progressively more people squeezed into the park's scenery. An interviewer gathers individual reactions to each image; determining, among other things, when a park looks too crowded for a visitor to enjoy. The rigorously collected response data is then crunched and fed into a computer simulation (also developed by Manning and his team) of visitor movement through a park at peak and non-peak times, and — voila — the basis for a science-based park management plan is born.

Manning’s model of determining “indicators” and “standards of quality” of the visitor experience in national parks, along with his creative methodologies, have won him acclaim — and an increasing number of new consulting jobs each year.

To coerce or not to coerce?
Another of Manning’s contributions to his field, more psychological than methodological, is summed up by the subtitle of his book, "commons without tragedy." The line references a paradigm-shifting essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons," that ecologist Garrett Hardin published in Science magazine in 1968.

A latter-day Malthus, Hardin argued that there was a built-in incentive to exploit a commonly held asset like a national park, a public grazing area, or an ocean fishery, since exploiters enjoyed all the benefits of, say, catching fish but shared the costs of their actions with the public at large. Making matters worse, Hardin argued, was that shared costs, principally the gradual degradation of the asset, aren't always clear. His solution to the problem was for society to coerce more cooperative behavior.

Manning is considerably more optimistic. “Hardin’s argument was cast in traditional economic terms,” he says. It involved people acting rationally in the sense of maximizing benefits for themselves. But real people aren't always economically rational. Altruism — the impulse that leads people to donate money to support national parks they don’t visit, for instance — is also a powerful motivator.

As is enlightened self-interest, which Manning and his colleagues have learned can form the basis of a vigorous, post-Hardin approach to guiding public use of the commons — both the national parks and beyond. Manning's book concludes with a chapter that looks at the applicability of his methods outside parks.

"We have a lot of tools we didn't used to have," Manning says. "It's time to get going on this. This is not a new topic."

As afternoon appointments begin looming, it’s time to head back to campus. Manning opts for the speed of a CCTA bus. Walking and running through beautiful scenery has attracted and inspired him since childhood but, indoors or out, he is also a pragmatist.