Research: an essential ingredient in the outdoor recreation mix – ORRRC At 40!

Alan Ewert

NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: Throughout the year, Parks & Recreation is highlighting sections of Outdoor Recreation For America in an effort to bring a valuables spotlight to the history of our profession and our community. We hope you will take to heart what our history provides and use its offerings to better yourself, your community and our parks.

When the original Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission report was issued in 1962, its recommendations generally fell into one of four themes:

* Natural resources of outstanding natural, aesthetic, scientific or historical/cultural value should be protected from unwise use or neglect.

* Recreation resources should be wisely used and developed.

* All citizens should have opportunities to discover and enjoy the outdoors.

* There should be an equitable and effective balance between the recreational and other uses of natural resources.

Two major forces were driving the development of the recommendations–the increasing pressures and demands being placed on the nation’s natural resources, primarily through expanded use, and the many inefficiencies occurring in how public lands were being managed. Since the 1960s, more lands have been placed into “protected” categories, such as wilderness or parks, but overall, the total amount of available land and other resources available for outdoor recreation has remained static, while the number of users and desired uses for those resources continues to climb steeply.

The ORRRC Mandate

Decreasing or static resources coupled with increasing demands and user expectations has created the third major force in the management of our natural resources: How should decisions be made regarding natural resource use, and who gets to make these decisions? Not surprisingly, the ORRRC report advocated a “systematic and continuing program of research” to provide a basis for wise decision-making and sound management.

The ORRRC report went on to suggest that recreation research be pursued along three distinct but not isolated lines: data collection, inventory and assessment; information for application and management decision-making; and fundamental and theoretical investigations. Since the report, research in outdoor recreation has proceeded along these three general directions, although the composition of the cadre of researchers has changed and the overall emphasis has begun to shift.

Much of the early recreation research, particularly that referred to in the ORRRC report, was developed and conducted by government organizations such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service. This effort was particularly effective in creating a longitudinal component by building a cadre of recreation researchers who devoted their careers in science to recreation-related topics, in addition to directing funding to various recreation research projects. In many ways, these researchers laid the foundation from which much of our current knowledge has developed, including Driver’s taxonomy of recreation motives (Driver & Toucher, 1970) and the concept of recreation specialization (Bryan, 1977).

Contemporary Recreation Research

Today, the scene is changing in several ways. First, the government is becoming less of a player in the overall recreation research effort, with fewer scientists within the federal system devoted exclusively to recreation research. In addition, the recreation research emphasis is being diluted by more contemporary issues of understanding the human dimensions of natural resource management, societal decision-making processes and integrated resource management efforts. Moreover, the economic aspects of recreation, which heretofore have played an important role in the recreation research scene, continue to be hampered by the difficulty of measuring nonmarket goods, such as recreation-derived benefits.

The Promise of ORRRC

Has society lived up to the lofty research goals and mandates set forth in the ORRRC report of 1962? The answer appears to be both “yes” and “no.”

“Yes,” in the sense that outdoor recreation research, while moving away from a system primarily centered around federal scientists toward one focused around universities, non-governmental organizations and not-for-profit groups, has continued to serve as a focal point for much of the research done in the broader areas of recreation, leisure and tourism. Moreover, the study parameters, hypotheses tested and methods used have become more sophisticated and capable of bringing a finer, more accurate understanding of the outdoor recreation phenomenon, all within the framework of a systematic and scientific paradigm. For example, research conducted under an outdoor recreation rubric now commonly includes topics such as normative behaviors and values, measuring for a diverse mosaic of outcomes (e.g., family bonding or aesthetic appreciation), the effects of urbanization and culture on recreation behavior, and understanding how a sense of place plays a mediating role in the valuation process individuals and groups go through (Manning, 1999).

The answer becomes “no” if we consider the long-term impact our outdoor recreation research has had on the public welfare. True, some of our research has aided decision-making in designing more efficacious management strategies, and yes, we do have a better understanding of some of the theoretical models, such as specialization and optimal arousal, subscribed to in the field of outdoor recreation. But is our research fully addressing the important and contemporary issues our society needs from outdoor recreation?

Back in the 1960s, the ORRRC report discussed the role that research would play in helping managers properly determine the carrying capacity for a specific location, the effects of urbanization on outdoor recreation use patterns, the growing importance that values would play in natural resource decision-making and the importance of multidisciplinary research approaches. What’s bothersome is that these ideas were set forth more than 40 years ago, yet much of the outdoor recreation research being conducted today still involves many of these issues.

That being the case, I’d like to highlight one of the abandoned recommendations of the ORRRC report that held great promise for the research side of the equation–establishing the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. Although I’m not advocating a reawakening of this sleeping giant, one of the roles perceived as integral to the BOR was creating the Research Advisory Committee, which would provide coordination and depository functions for the broad and often eclectic field of outdoor recreation research. After all, while there are many organizations involved in outdoor recreation research, there is little overall coordination, even at the federal and state level, thereby creating many inefficiencies and redundancies.

In sum, what can one say about the state of outdoor recreation research on the 40th anniversary of the ORRRC report? Outdoor recreation research has certainly become more sophisticated and capable of tackling complex issues. This evolution is ironic, however, if one believes that the issues haven’t seemed to change all that much since the early 1960s. There has certainly been a broadening of the researcher cadre with the inclusion of other academic disciplines, such as environmental psychology and social psychology, but has this greater breath come at the expense of reduced depth in the number of researchers primarily looking at recreation-related phenomenon?

Finally, are we still looking at the right questions? Issues such as carrying capacity are important, but do they address any of the current social ills plaguing our society? Would we better fulfill the mandate of the ORRRC by developing a fuller understanding of issues such as how the outdoor environment can be used therapeutically, or how families and individuals can be strengthened? Would improving our understanding of how outdoor recreation can be better used to contribute to the overall wellness of individuals and our society be a worthy objective? Similarly, how can outdoor recreation be used to develop within our citizens a better understanding of ecological processes, and how we humans interact and depend upon those processes?

Without a doubt, we’ve come a long way in the development of outdoor recreation research. But let’s strive to make sure our research efforts don’t simply move in a circle. The ORRRC report laid a sound foundation for future research efforts; our job is to continue to build the house.


Bryan, H. (1977). Leisure value systems and recreational specialization: The case of the trout fisherman. Journal of Leisure Research, 9, 174-87.

Driver, B., & Toucher, R. (1970). Toward a behavioral interpretation of recreational engagements, with implications for planning. Elements of Outdoor Recreation Planning. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, 9-31.

Manning, R. (1999). Studies in outdoor recreation: Search and research for satisfaction. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press.

Alan Ewert, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Recreation and Park Administration and an associate dean in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Indiana University. He is the editor of the Journal of Experiential Education and has been branch chief of recreation, wilderness and urban forestry research with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

COPYRIGHT 2002 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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