Visitor Use Management: Guidelines for an Effective Framework
With great success generating interest in natural landscapes have come great challenges in preserving them.
An iconic steward of American history and culture, the National Park Service (NPS) is an organization with deep roots in maintaining our nation’s natural spaces and historical and cultural heritage. We have, among others, the efforts of Stephen T. Mather – the first Director of NPS in 1916 – to thank for building public and political support for national parks. His vision is one of trailblazing and appreciation for sublime natural landscapes. In fact, upon his death, a gold plaque was placed in every national park in the U.S., inscribed with “There will never come an end to the good he has done.” The practice of visitor use management (VUM) now carries on that tradition of doing good with our natural landscapes and historic places.
The Rise of Visitor Use
In the early years of the National Park Service, the challenge for Mather and others was to attract visitors to the national parks to build a constituency and the support needed to sustain them. Early campaigns to promote the national parks included development of grand hotels in crown jewel parks, like the Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park and Paradise Inn in Mount Rainier National Park. Travel to the national parks by railroad was promoted as a thrilling adventure to explore the west. In the 1950’s, an effort referred to as “Mission 66” focused on building facilities and services to promote visitor use and recreation.
These efforts, coupled with the development of the interstate system, growing environmental awareness in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and increasing leisure time and wealth among Americans resulted in extraordinary growth in visitation to the National Park System. As the NPS celebrated its centennial in 2016, there were more than 300 million recreation visits to the National Park System that year.
Read along or skip ahead:
- What Does Visitor Use Management Mean?
- Why Use a Visitor Use Management Framework?
- Elements of a Visitor Use Management Framework
- Visitor Use Management Strategies
- Visitor Use Management Use Cases
Arches National Park – Visitor Use Study
Credit: National Park Service, South East Utah Group and Steve Bumgardner
Visitor Use Today: Success Fueling Challenges
In recent years, the trend of rising visitation to national parks has reached unprecedented levels, with several parks recording historic levels of monthly and annual visitation. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the outdoors representing a space for safe recreation, was a key factor in driving current trends and levels of visitation.
The rise in popularity of national parks is, without question, a story of great success. The millions of visitors to the National Park System have opportunities for profound experiences that can positively impact them for a lifetime. Yet, increasing amounts and types of visitor use in our national parks can present challenges too. For example, during busy periods in some parks, lines of traffic may form at park entrances, visitors may have difficulty finding parking, and crowding may occur in visitor centers, on trails, and at attractions.
We work with our clients to help them address these opportunities and challenges through the practice of visitor use management. In Mathers’ spirit, we seek to understand how people interact with a park’s significant resources in a meaningful way to develop a deeper appreciation of and sense of stewardship for America’s natural, historical, and cultural heritage.
In this piece, we take a deep dive into the practice of visitor use management and explain how it provides a framework for our work with our clients.
What Does Visitor Use Management Mean?
Visitor use management is the proactive and adaptive practice of identifying strategies and actions to accommodate visitor use while protecting park resources as well as the quality and character of visitor experiences.
Not only is visitor use management relevant to our work, it’s also relevant to anyone who may visit a national park or related protected area. It’s the art of articulating desired conditions for park resources and visitors’ experiences and evaluating on-the-ground practices to learn and adapt over time.
A Dual-Mission Land Use Mandate
Visitor use management is a balancing act. Professionals in this sphere need to be mindful of their goals — providing opportunities for people to enjoy these sites and understanding how that affects park resources, park operations, and the experiences of other visitors. Effective visitor use management incorporates environmental ethics and education, ultimately encouraging visitors to become stewards of national parks and everything they represent.
All things considered, the goal is ultimately to strike a proper balance between the opportunities and challenges presented by national parks. The visitor use management framework is designed to provide a systematic basis for helping address these challenges.
Why Use A Visitor Use Management Framework?
Developed by the Interagency Visitor Use Management Council (IVUMC), the IVUMC Framework provides a systematic, transparent, and legally defensible method for putting visitor use management principles into practice.
The framework has deep historical roots in how visitor use of national parks, national forests and similar public land recreation areas have been monitored and adaptively managed. The framework represents the latest iteration of a long-standing commitment to indicator-based, adaptive visitor use management.
Elements of a Visitor Use Management Framework
Together, the elements of the visitor use management framework are grounded in thinking about and developing statements of desired conditions while establishing indicators that can be monitored in the process of meeting those conditions.
The visitor use management framework provides a guide for navigating the process of defining those elements and there are some key concepts incorporated into the framework:
Establishing Desired Conditions
Desired conditions represent an important part of the foundation for addressing visitor use management in parks. Desired conditions are narrative statements that describe the ideal quality, character, and conditions of park resources to be protected while considering visitor experiences that enhance public use and enjoyment.
It is the responsibility and privilege of the National Park Service to specify desired conditions for national park resources and visitor experiences.
Indicators are measurable proxies for desired conditions that can be monitored to track changes in park resources and visitors’ experiences associated with recreation use. For example, the number of encounters with other groups per hour while hiking is an indicator related to the quality and character of visitors’ experiences.
Good indicators are those that can be easily and reliably measured, are related to and representative of desired conditions, and are responsive to visitor use management actions. In cases where managing use according to numeric user capacities is needed, indicators must also be directly related to the amounts and types of recreation use.
Types of Indicators
Social indicators, such as hiking encounters, the number of people at one time at boat ramps, and similar, tend to be directly related to changes in the types and amounts of recreation use and provide a reliable basis for managing recreation use according to numeric user capacities, where necessary.
In contrast, natural resource-related indicators generally do not have direct and reliably quantifiable relationships to recreation use levels except in extreme low use situations (e.g., trail-less/cross country zones, foot trails with less than 50 to 250 hikers per year). Nonetheless, resource-related indicators should be monitored, and adaptive resource management actions should be taken to protect park resources from impacts.
Managing the characteristics of visitor use (e.g., to concentrate use on established trail treads, road surfaces, and other established recreation resources and facilities, to promote low-impact use behaviors and patterns, etc.) is the most effective method for limiting or reducing recreation use impacts to natural resource-related indicators.
Setting Thresholds and Triggers
Thresholds in visitor use management are the minimally acceptable conditions of indicators to maintain desired conditions. Thresholds should be precise, time-bounded, and outcomes of recreation use rather than types or amounts of recreation use themselves.
Like thresholds, triggers are quantifiable conditions of indicators; they represent points at which adaptive management actions are needed to ensure the conditions of indicators do not cross thresholds. In other words, triggers are designed to support proactive visitor use management to protect park resources and visitors’ experiences from adverse impact, while allowing for recreation use and public enjoyment.
Estimating Numeric User Capacities
When they are necessary, numeric user capacities are estimated based on quantifiable relationships between the types and amounts of recreation use and the conditions of use-related indicators. The best available data are used to estimate the maximum amount of recreation use that can be accommodated without crossing thresholds for user capacity indicators.
For example, trail counter data could be correlated with observations from encounter patrols to estimate the maximum number of people who can hike in a river corridor without crossing a threshold for the number of encounters hikers have with other groups per hour or day. Numeric user capacities are not always needed or applicable.
Developing Visitor Use Management Strategies
Within the IVUMF, visitor use management strategies and actions are developed to achieve desired conditions.
Visitor use management strategies and actions are generally categorized as indirect techniques designed to achieve desired conditions without directly regulating visitors’ choices and behaviors, or direct techniques that may be required when indirect techniques are not enough.
Long-Term Monitoring and Adaptive Management
A systematic monitoring program provides the structure to measure indicators and assess their conditions in relation to triggers and thresholds on a recurring basis. Monitoring results provide the basis to determine if actions are needed to adapt management of recreation use to protect natural, cultural, and historical resources from adverse impacts.
Visitor Use Management Use Cases
While still fairly new in practice (the IVUMC was founded in 2011) applications of the visitor use management framework have quickly become prevalent in the National Park System as well as other public land recreation areas.
Visitor Use Management in National Parks
Acadia National Park provides unique and important recreation opportunities to regional, national, and international visitors. In 2021, the National Park Service (NPS) reported just over four million recreation visits to the park, marking an increase of over 50% in the past decade. This surge in visitation created a number of visitor use management challenges in the park.
Visitor Use Management in National Forests
The United States Forest Services is responsible for managing Wild and Scenic Rivers on lands within their jurisdiction. Part of this responsibility includes fulfilling the visitor use management and visitor capacity mandate of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968).
Visitor Use Management in Local, County and State Parks
Over the years, the Jefferson County Open Space (JCOS) system in Colorado experienced rapid growth in visitation numbers. Various issues were addressed by applying visitor use management principles to develop an access management strategy for popular sites in the JCOS system.