Sustainable Management of Campsites: Research on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest National Scenic Trails

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Current and increasing visitation to protected natural areas has the potential to negatively impact natural resources and threaten the quality of visitors’ experiences. In backcountry and wilderness settings land managers have often allowed visitors to select and create their own campsites, which surveys reveal are often close to water, formal trails, and other campsites. This research is focused on assessing the sustainability of campsites to resist expansion in size and vegetation/soil impact and applying those capabilities to identify more sustainable locations that can accommodate higher use with less resource impact while meeting the needs of visitors.

The Challenge: Across the National Park Service backcountry camping has increased 26% since 1990, to more than two million visitors in 2017. Campsite impacts generally result from trampling or depreciative visitor behavior, and include campsite proliferation, expansion of existing campsites, tree damage and felling, vegetation loss and compositional change, soil exposure and loss, water pollution, and wildlife disturbance. Monitoring and research studies have consistently revealed that unregulated camping in moderate to high use areas results in extensive and avoidable camping impact. Three commonly observed problems include: 1) visitors create non-sustainable campsites in flat terrain close to attraction or water features, 2) the emergence of high-density clusters of exceptionally large campsites with unacceptable levels of resource and social impact, and 3) site proliferation over time creates large numbers of unnecessary campsites. A common management focus is to concentrate use on a smaller number of sustainable campsites that minimize aggregate camping impacts through actions that reduce the “footprint” of intensive camping impact, i.e., smaller sites have less vegetation loss, soil exposure and erosion, or damaged and felled trees.

The Science: While the practice of closing undesirable or unsustainable campsites has been adopted in some backcountry and wilderness areas, the practice of actively selecting, designating, or constructing highly sustainable campsites remains rare. This research aims to further our understanding of the most influential factors that contribute to limiting resource impacts on campsites and the relative influence of each on areal measures of camping impact. Through field research on campsites along the Appalachian and Pacific Crest National Scenic Trails this research investigates and improves our ability to perform ground-based and computer-based GIS analyses to evaluate the sustainability of existing and new campsites.  This work is expected to provide substantial new management tools and capabilities for accommodating existing and future increases in overnight visitation while minimizing associated environmental impacts.

The Future: Once tools for evaluating the sustainability of existing and new campsites are developed they need to be applied, refined, and field-tested in adaptive management case studies to evaluate their merits. The challenge of shifting visitors to new more sustainable campsites and closing/restoring the older less sustainable campsites is also a core research topic. Considerations related to Wilderness Character and the use of educational vs. regulatory strategies and actions are substantial and require further investigation. New technologies like GPS units and cell phone apps being used by backcountry visitors offer new and efficient options or shifting use and these must also be investigated and developed.