Increased visitorship in New England national forests leads to increased stresses on landscape

(Brian Pocius Via Flickr CC)

A lot more people have visited New England’s national forests throughout the COVID-19 pandemic than in years past, and researchers at the University of New Hampshire say that’s created issues for the trails, and for the hikers.

Michael Ferguson, a professor of recreation management and policy at the University of New Hampshire, says visitorship in New England’s national forests increased by more than 60% throughout the summer of 2020. He’s also seen a 400% increase in visitation to congressionally designated wilderness areas throughout the pandemic.

The increase in visitors has brought new stresses to national forests like the White Mountain National Forest.

“Things like crowding, and visitors experiencing conflict,” he said. “We see ecological impacts; for instance, impacts to the physical resource trail, resource degradation, trampling of the flora and fauna.”

There’s also been impacts like more traffic, more litter, and more limited access to facilities.

The new stresses have disproportionately impacted women and lower-income visitors, Ferguson’s research shows.

“When an individual visitor is confronted with an impact, they have to cope or deal with it. Usually that is in the form of substitution, meaning they’re going somewhere else, they’re coming back at a different time of the day,” he said.

That kind of substitution is harder on lower-income recreators. And women in the outdoors were significantly more likely, in Ferguson’s study, to experience conflict during their visits.

Climate change is creating new stresses, too. During mud season, trails can come under a lot of pressure.

“You now have increased visitors because weather is warmer in the spring, and now more and more folks are recreating on these trails, thus this cycle begins of more and more trail-related impacts,” Ferguson said.

The decrease in days when downhill ski areas are open has led recreators to go further into the backcountry to find snow, which can put people in dangerous situations if they don’t have the training or gear to stay safe. And hikers are at increased risk of exposure to ticks.

Ferguson says those who manage recreation areas are working on solutions. National forests, which have many points of entry and often see visitors driving through, have different considerations than national parks, which often have more limited entrance and exit points.

Parks in other parts of the country have started to implement registration systems and other ways to manage the increase in visitors, which has led to questions about accessibility and equity. Ferguson said more research is needed to see what would work in New England.

“We are at this crux, this tipping point, if you will,” he said. “How many visitors is too many visitors?”

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