Fast growing western communities are faced with the paradox of increasing visitor numbers.
Hartman Rocks is a popular mountain biking area just a few miles southwest of Gunnison, Colorado.
This story was originally published by KUNC and is republished here with permission.
Visitors flocked to western communities during the pandemic to immerse themselves in the public areas of the region. But how many visitors? While the National Park Service closely monitors visits, the National Forests and Bureau of Land Management lack an efficient and inexpensive way to measure pedestrian traffic.
However, that kind of information, along with data on state and local areas, is vital for Western communities trying to balance the good and bad of increased visitor numbers, said Megan Lawson, an economist at Headwaters Economics. The non-partisan research group that studies community development recently published a report Recommend digital tools to collect such data.
Without accurate information about trail usage, Lawson said, mountain west communities face major economic barriers.
“Communities with lots of public space trying to develop outdoor recreation economies are having a really hard time justifying related investments unless they know exactly how much recreation is actually happening in public spaces near those areas Communities, ”Lawson said.
Trail managers, the report says, often use unscientific methods to monitor how many people are using trails; B. the number of toilet paper rolls that are swapped out in pit toilets or the number of dog litter bags that are used at trailheads.
The report points to the paradox faced by rapidly growing western communities near public land. These communities benefit from outdoor recreation in many ways, Lawson said. For example, people visit areas with wild open spaces, fall in love with those places, decide to move there, and then help diversify the local economy when they bring their businesses with them.
At the same time, it means that small western cities are constantly struggling to keep up with the increase in population and visitors. Lawson points to an impact on roads that lack the load-bearing capacity to accommodate motorists traveling to trailheads. The growth puts a strain on water and sewage systems. Even search and rescue teams, which are often publicly funded, are stretched thin as they respond to an increased number of incidents, she said.
The report highlights the instruments that could anchor a unified federal system for monitoring land use. Lawson said the toolbox should include social media tags, fitness tracking apps, cell phone data, and searching the web for trails.
“Academic researchers have shown the success of these methods along with our research,” she said.
Monitoring what trails are searched online can also “make pretty accurate predictions of what will happen in the future” when it comes to trail usage, Lawson said.
“T.There is real potential here for land managers to mitigate some of the effects of these really big recovery spikes. “
“And so there is real potential for land managers to mitigate some of the effects of these really big recovery spikes.”
However, Lawson admits that using social media tools and cell phone data to build a unified system creates privacy issues.
To address these concerns, all companies that provide data are doing some form of “de-identification” so that analysts cannot track individual users, Lawson said. Some strategies involve reporting only aggregated metrics, such as: For example, if a path exceeds 75% normal usage.
Lawson said privacy concerns “indicate the power of using multiple novel data sources in recreational modeling as another avenue to avoid privacy intrusions.”
Researchers from Headwaters and other organizations have also recommended improving the federal “Payments Instead of Taxes” program, which finances municipalities with federal states, so that western cities can receive more financial support to offset infrastructure burdens. Gathering more accurate data on the use of public land should provide information on how those funds will be distributed, the report said.
Robyn Vincent is a reporter for KUNC’s Mountain West News Bureau. E-mail Highland news at the [email protected] or send a letter to the editor.