Outdoor Recreation Areas: Saving Our National Treasures  

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Thunder Hole in Acadia

By Mark Okrant, NH Travel Guru

Many of us have visited a national or state-operated park or forest. Regardless of your experience, it’s likely that the effort taken to preserve these wondrous places has escaped your notice.

Numerous federal and state agencies are charged with maintaining the quality of these treasures. Periodically—i.e., one to ten years—our nation’s outdoor areas should be evaluated to determine how much wear and tear has occurred. This is where the concept of “carrying capacity” comes into play. Carrying capacity is defined as the amount of usage that a recreation area can sustain without excessive deterioration to the physical site itself and to patrons’ experiences.

Mark Okrant

For those of us who have been fortunate to visit our nation’s parks and forests, it behooves us to keep a watchful eye toward any deterioration. The signs are not difficult to spot: eroded paths with exposed tree roots, parking areas with deep tire tracks, broken vegetation, large patches of dead grass, as well as unusable picnic tables, fire pits, and swing sets.

Each of the aforementioned is a byproduct of underfunding and understaffing our public recreation areas. The situation has become exacerbated by a steady increase in the demand for those spaces. Unfortunately, growing interest in visiting our park and forest lands has been occurring at a time when public funding is less available.

How can federal and state agencies protect these irreplaceable places? The solution is not a simple one. First, consider carrying capacity. The obvious solution to meeting increased demand is by adding more land to the park and forest systems; however, this will not be easily accomplished. At a time when farming, forestry, and mining interests are demanding greater access to federal lands, the notion of expanding federal land holdings would appear to be out of the question in most instances.

A second possible solution would be to establish quotas or time-use systems within our busiest federal properties. This sounds good in theory. However, what would your reaction be if you were the one whose visit was limited in length or cancelled altogether?

Two of the more realistic solutions appear to be education and site hardening. Education sounds like a good idea in theory; however, how can such a system be implemented in a way that guarantees prospective visitors will take the instructional program seriously?

Finally, there is site hardening. This is a process by which recreation area managers take measures to protect their areas against the normal ravages of the visiting public. At its best, site hardening involves resurfacing walkways and parking lots, fencing fragile areas, and providing needed drainage conduits, all while using natural materials. At its worst, the natural feel of an environment can be obliterated by over zealous site hardening, when concrete or asphalt replaces ground cover and environmental protective mechanisms.

One of the worst examples of site hardening I have experienced occurred at the dramatic natural phenomenon known as Thunder Hole, in Maine’s Acadia National Park. Reacting to twin concerns over visitor accessibility and safety, the National Park Service constructed a maze of concrete sidewalks and ramps surrounded by steel railings. The result is that substantially more people can view Thunder Hole simultaneously; however, the feeling of being one-with-nature has been lost forever.

One can only hope that passage of the federal government’s Restore Our Parks Act (see NH Travel Guru column from July 21, 2018) produces a sensible response to an issue that is certain to impact outdoor recreation in this country for future generations.

The Politics of Recreation and Tourism  

In April 2017, after forty years as an educator, researcher, consultant, and mystery writer, Mark Okrant joined IndepthNH.org. Mark shares his insight about the travel and tourism industry, focusing upon its importance to New Hampshire. From time to time, he’ll spin a humorous story or two, always looking to educate us about the industry he loves. 

 Learn more about Mark’s tourism-based Kary Turnell murder mystery series by visiting www.markokrant.com.

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