A University of Vermont-led team has successfully used social media to measure the economic value of outdoor recreation on public lands. 

The study analyzed more than 7,000 geotagged photos on Flickr to calculate that parks – and other conserved areas – contributed $1.8 billion to Vermont’s tourism industry from 2007-2014.

The study is the first to use social media to assess the value and use of protected lands for outdoor recreation across an entire U.S. state. It is also the first comprehensive tally of outdoor recreation on conserved lands in Vermont.

“Historically, it’s been difficult to assess the value of protected lands,” says UVM lead author Laura Sonter, whose findings were published by the journal PLOS ONE. “Many parks only staff entrance booths in the summer. Some areas gather no data, or rely on surveys, which are time-consuming and expensive to collect.” 

Every picture tells a story 

The research shows that social media can help explain why certain protected areas are more popular than others. Analyzing photo locations, the researchers identified eight factors that drive conserved land usage, including trail density, forest cover, and opportunities for winter or summer activities.

The study also revealed key differences in the recreation habits of Vermonters and out-of-state tourists. For example, forest loss significantly reduced the number of Vermonters visiting conserved lands, but had less of an effect on out-of-state tourists, who preferred locations with easy access to clean water and swimming.

A new way to track use

The research suggests that social media could give cash-strapped jurisdictions a cheaper way to track recreation on protected lands, says Sonter, a postdoctoral researcher at UVM’s Gund Institute and Rubenstein School for Environment and Natural Resources

“These findings show that protected lands generate more for our economy than previously known,” says Sonter. “They can guide strategic investment decisions to enhance our natural environment, outdoor recreation, and tourism.”

Study co-authors include UVM’s Taylor Ricketts and Keri Watson, and Spencer Wood of the University of Washington. The team included members of the Natural Capital Project.


  • Conserved lands are areas that are legally protected for the purpose of environmental conservation, including national forests, state and municipal parks, and conservation easements. Conservation lands do not include private commercial areas, such as ski resorts or golf courses.
  • While Vermont tourism data includes revenues from both commercial and conservation and lands, the value of outdoor recreation on Vermont conserved lands has been largely unknown. Previous work has estimated forest-based recreation, but omitted several types of other conservation lands.

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0162372


Basil D.N. Waugh