Science Center Objects

Wilderness areas in the United States are preserved for their untrammeled naturalness and opportunities for unconfined recreation. In park and wilderness management, integrating social and resource indicators is essential to meet park mandates that require the protection of both experiential and resource conditions. Recreation ecology examines the effects of recreation on protected area ecosystems and wildlife.

Trails in flat terrain with wet soils are also unsustainable

Trails in flat terrain with wet soils are also unsustainable, with chronic problems of muddiness and tread widening. (Public domain.)




Sustainably Designed Trails: Recent Recreation Ecology Findings on Design Factors Affecting Soil Loss

Achieving conservation objectives in protected natural areas requires the ability to sustain visitation while avoiding or minimizing adverse environmental impacts. Trails are an essential infrastructure component that limits resource impacts by concentrating use on hardened treads designed and maintained to sustain traffic. This is particularly challenging when visitation is heavy or when higher impacting uses, such as equestrian or motorized use, must be accommodated. Concentrated traffic from hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers, and horse riders on natural surfaced trails removes or prevents vegetative and organic litter cover on treads, compacts substrates, and increases water runoff and the erosion of soil. Soil loss is perhaps the most significant form of environmental impact because of its long-term nature and secondary impacts: eroded soil often enters waterways, causing impacts to aquatic environments.




Traffic from hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers, and horse riders on natural surfaced trails prevents vegetation to grow

Sustainable side-hill trails are more easily drained of water and can accommodate heavy traffic with little degradation. (Public domain.)





Research and Management of Informal (Visitor-Created) Trails in Protected Areas

The proliferation and degradation of visitor-created “informal” trails in protected areas can be a vexing management issue for land managers. Formal trail systems never provide access to all locations required by visitors seeking to engage in a variety of appropriate recreational activities. Traveling off-trail may be necessary to engage in activities such as nature study, fishing, or camping. Unfortunately, management experience reveals that informal trail systems are frequently poorly designed, including “shortest distance” routing with steep grades and alignments parallel to the slope. Such routes are rarely sustainable under heavy traffic and subsequent resource degradation is often severe. Vegetation impacts include trampling damage leading to loss of vegetation cover, changes in species composition, and the potential introduction and dispersal of non-native plants. Soil impacts include the pulverization and loss of organic litter, and exposure, compaction, and erosion of soil. Soil deposition in streams, disturbance to wildlife, and damage to sensitive historic resources are also possible.

Researchers on cliff face investigating the effects of climbing on rare cliff plants.

Researchers on cliff face investigating the effects of climbing (Public domain.)




Sustainably Designed Trails: Recent Recreation Ecology Findings on Design Factors Affecting Soil Loss

Both formal and informal (visitor-created) trails are being assessed to document their spatial extent and distribution and resource conditions, including attributes such as width and soil loss. Areas of more intensive trampling disturbance, such as cliff-base fishing sites, rock climbing staging and belaying sites, and cliff-top vista sites accessed by hikers, have also been assessed. Impacts to cliff plants have been assessed along 16 vertical transects on the cliff face, including identification and cover estimates for each plant species and data characterizing an array of environmental, physical, and use/impact attributes. A comprehensive survey of rare plants on the cliff-top, cliff-face, and base has also been conducted.

Do not feed the wildlife

Keep wildlife healthy and wild by not feeding them. Allowing wildlife to obtain even small amounts of human food creates unnatural and unhealthy food dependencies. Wildlife attracted to human food often suffer nutritionally and expose themselves to predators, dogs, and vehicle accidents. (Credit: Jeffrey Marion, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Public domain.)






Please Don't Feed the Wildlife

Opportunities to view and interact with wildlife are often an important part of high quality recreational experiences. Wildlife feeding, intentional or unintentional, is common in many natonal parks and protected areas. Federal law prohibits the feeding of wildlife in all national parks and wildlife refuges, although visitors are often unaware or choose to ignore the law, and enforcement is difficult. Visitors frequently seek out protected natural areas expressly for the wildlife watching and the human–wildlife interactive experiences they provide.

Park managers are challenged to find effective ways to enable human–wildlife interactions while protecting both visitors and wildlife from potential negative consequences. Behavioral changes in wildlife attracted to human food can increase their risk of injury or death.

Resolving the problem of wildlife feeding requires altering human behavior—visitors who feed wildlife, improperly store or dispose of trash, leave food unattended at campgrounds and picnic areas, or leave food scraps behind. Low impact outdoor practices that address food storage and wildlife viewing have been developed and communicated by  organizations such as Leave No Trace and the Center for Wildlife Information.