Tourism and recreation management: strategies for public lands

Christine J. Clements

Public lands have played a long and important role in tourism and recreation in the United States. This role, especially on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands, is becoming even more significant due to dramatic changes over the last decade. While multiple land use has been a driving force for these organizations for years, the last decade has brought major policy shifts in the areas of agricultural, mining and forest uses.

These changes have led communities, in and adjacent to the forest, to explore economic diversification strategies to help stem the resulting economic declines in their natural resource-based economies.

Tourism is one development strategy that these communities often view as having great potential. Tourism offers an appealing option for two major reasons: 1) there has been a dramatic increase in recreation use on public lands and 2) communities must identify “non-extractive” methods of capitalizing on this vast natural resource. In many cases sustainable tourism–development strategies based on ecologically sound planning principles–has been the goal.

Unique Characteristics of Tourism and Recreation

As communities and public land management agencies pursue a strategy of sustainable tourism development, it is critical that they are aware of the unique characteristics of the tourism industry. This will provide insight into the marketing and management challenges of development.

–Public Sector/Private Sector Split in Tourism Roles. In most cases, the public sector owns and manages the attraction. It may be a museum, beach, hiking trails, wildlife, recreational lands, community festivals, or dramatic scenery that draw people to an area. The private sector creates the jobs and services necessary to meet visitors’ needs. Once the private sector is established, it often takes the leadership role in bringing more visitors to the area. In the past, these two sectors have not established effective coordination tools that are necessary to develop a sustainable recreation and tourism industry.

–Recreation and Tourism are Not Products. “Experiencing” tourism and recreation is different than simply buying goods or services. For many people, it is an emotional experience often shared with family members or friends and is remembered for many years. In today’s busy world, a visitor’s time is often more important than the cost of the experience. Unfortunately, both the public land management agencies and community organizations are typically unaware of this “experience” concept or don’t have the tools to help direct and manage the experience.

–Partial Control Over Selecting Visitors and Users. Tourism is often defined as attracting visitors from 100 miles or more. Obviously marketing and information distribution play key roles in determining who will visit an area. The community and resource manager should develop a message for a particular target audience. Selecting specific target markets assures a better match between users and available experiences. Historically, tourism marketers have been effective in attracting visitors with a predetermined set of characteristics. These marketing techniques can be used effectively in community tourism development efforts as well.

–Quality and Service Are Keys to Competitiveness. While each community or area has its own unique characteristics and features, the quality of the experience and the services provided are often what distinguishes one area from another. The tourism industry is very competitive, and the key to competing in this industry is quality and service. Thus, all participants in the delivery of the tourism experience must work together to assure that each and every visitor has a memorable experience.

Management Challenges

These unique characteristics of tourism, combined with the increasing reliance on public lands for recreation and tourism purposes, clearly suggest a parallel increase in the need for new land management strategies. Several challenges need to be addressed, including the following:

–Increasing Numbers and Types of Users Increasing numbers of people are looking toward public lands as a recreational resource base. In addition, the demand is increasing for more specialized uses. Now with exploding recreational alternatives and increasing numbers of users, many public lands are nearing or exceeding capacity.

–Gateway Communities Turning to Public Land Management Agencies for Assistance Communities are demanding that land management agencies provide more recreational and tourism resources to help diversify local economies. This will logically be coupled with increasing demands from recreational users to modify traditional land use (agriculture, mining, and forestry) policies and practices that are inconsistent with recreational tourism needs. However, poor tourism and recreational development can be just as destructive as poor agricultural, mining and forestry uses. If recreational management practices are not implemented early, dramatic damages can occur. Once recreational users are established on public lands, it is difficult to solve problems, reduce user numbers and manage the emerging hot political issues.

–Escalated Levels of Conflict Increased conflicts among public land users, including conflicts among recreational users, will result in more battles in the arenas of public opinion, legislative branches, administrative procedures, and the courts. Many recreation areas are using double trails to separate uses like Nordic and skate skiing, or skaters, bikers, and pedestrians. Special user groups are also becoming very organized, therefore management policies need to be proactive and anticipate the rapidly changing user needs.

–Need for Public and Private Sector Partnerships Limited public resources and the complexity of the tourism industry are demanding new and innovative partnerships in developing and managing tourism and recreational services and products. While public lands offer a majority of the attractions for visitors and recreational users, the community and business sectors often play a larger role in generating more visitation to the area. Public land agencies will need to work with community groups if they expect to maintain a sustainable recreational base. The organizational structures needed for this partnership are just being developed, and there is very little precedent for designing, funding and managing these organizational structures.

Land Management Practices of the Future

While many of the future recreational and tourism land management practices are not new, their application on public lands will be. Many of these practices are controversial and will be met with resistance, both by user groups and within the land management agencies.

Nevertheless, a combination of the following tools will be needed in order to sustain long-term recreational and tourism use on public lands.

–Marketing as a Management Tool. Most public land management agencies are relatively inexperienced in the field of marketing and do not have specific strategies to attract niche markets. In the future, marketing will be used to direct users to appropriate public land uses, to control user’s demand for public lands, to help users identify appropriate recreational areas, and help people use public resources in a sustainable manner. Although there is only limited experience in using marketing as a public land management tool, pilot projects are being developed to test some of these marketing techniques. In the future, marketing will be used not only to increase use, but also to discourage, or limit use of particular areas.

For example, in 1993 two pueblos in New Mexico (Tesuque and Isleta) asked to be taken out of the New Mexico Vacation Guide produced by the New Mexico Department of Tourism. This request was honored by the publication, and has had the desired effect of reducing visitation in the areas. In Colorado, the Gold Belt Trail Scenic and Historic Byway, between Cripple Creek and Canyon City, has taken a segment of the byway off of their promotional materials as part of the Corridor Management Plan. The Peak to Peak Scenic and Historic Byway near Central City, Blackhawk and Estes Park, is beginning to take down highway signs so that access to some areas is more difficult.

–User Fees for Public Lands Most land management agencies have set fees below the actual cost of providing the recreational or tourism experience. As public lands are owned by all U.S. citizens, it is assumed they should be available to all. Thus, the product and experience are priced assuming that a minimum price is the only viable management strategy. This strategy has made it difficult to maintain the infrastructure needed to accommodate public recreational use and has, in many cases, resulted in degradation of the recreational resource base. There are two flaws to this strategy. First, the argument that people can’t afford higher fees is often an emotional appeal rather than a factual one. Research results have shown that the cost of transportation, food, lodging, and retail purchases often account for more than 95% of their travel experience.

–Limiting and Zoning Public Recreational Uses of Public Lands While public lands are open to a wide range of public recreational and tourism uses, more efforts will be placed in developing facilities and information to direct uses appropriate for the specific land area. Some recreational uses will be prohibited, limited in time and scope, and directed to specific geographical areas. Zoning will also help separate incompatible uses. These techniques will allow for conservation of the natural resource while still allowing for managed public use.

–Signage and Information Signs and information that direct, control and educate will play important roles in the management of public lands. More efforts need to be made to help individuals use the public lands in a sustainable way. Many visitors do not intentionally destroy the resource, rather their behaviors are the result of ignorance. Increased education can result in a more favorable experience for all.

–Design In the past, standardized designs have helped in efficiently delivering a product. Now that it is understood that the “experience” is an important component in recreational management, there will be a variety of designs, each appropriate to the desired experience and use. Design will be used more effectively to direct and control usage of public lands.

–Permits, Reservations and Other Demand Controls Reservations are an accepted management tool in the private sector. Some public lands, such as the Boundary Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota use permits to control use. Traditional private sector methods, reservations, permits, and peak pricing are tools to limit, direct and control demand. These management strategies will be used with increasing frequency to protect and preserve public lands.

–Managing the Experience. Most of today’s efforts are placed on managing sites and other physical features of public lands; the assumption is that people “create” the recreational or tourism experience by themselves. However, if land managers concentrate only on the physical features, they ignore other attributes that set many public lands apart from other recreational experiences. This concept is still in its infancy, but will grow in importance as the public lands become more crowded with people and uses.

–Concessionaires Concessionaires will become an increasingly important component of public land management. Services outside the primary focus of the land management agency will be provided by private concessionaires. Fee arrangements with these private businesses will, however, change so that increased revenues are returned to the land management agency. More emphasis will be placed on setting fees based on a percentage of business, rather than a flat rate fee structure. In addition, businesses of the future will be given specific time limits for their access to public lands and will need to periodically bid for the right to sell goods and services on public lands. This will be an important strategy for generating increased income to maintain and protect the recreational resource base.

–Partnerships and Community Based Structures to Manage Demand. Demand for public recreational resources is often generated outside the public land management agencies. Communities, user groups, private information distribution industries, state tourism organizations, and the media play important roles in creating increased demand. Partnership and management structures need to be created so public land agencies, the private tourism sector and communities can work together to develop and maintain a sustainable industry. Some tools that may be used include memorandums of understanding, legal entities to coordinate programs and projects, public groups that are sounding boards for new management practices and ideas, councils or public recreational users and providers, and information coordination groups. The goal is to coordinate the projects and programs of all groups involved in recreation and tourism. This requires both intrasector and intersector cooperation.

As an example, in 1991 New Mexico formed the Recreation and Tourism Council through a memorandum of understanding (MOU), signed by 11 federal and state agencies. The MOU has “facilitated the exchange of information, sharing of personnel and the coordinated development of recreation facilities and offerings within New Mexico.” This formal agreement is an excellent example of intrasector cooperation. The Cloudcroft (NM) Community Sustainable Development Program, described in more detail in the following case study, is an example of an intersector pilot program initiated by the U.S. Forest Service. The focus of the program is on the development of a formal coordination structure between the U.S. Forest Service, the Lincoln National Forest, the community of Cloudcroft, and other stakeholders interested in developing and maintaining a sustainable economy. Formal agreements and programs, like these, will be necessary in order to implement effective management practices.

Case Example

The Lincoln National Forest is attempting to prepare for the future and to effectively manage its resources through a comprehensive community-based sustainable development program. The Forest selected one of its bordering communities to pilot this program, is known as CAST (Cloudcroft Area Sustainability Team). CAST is community-based and community-driven and began with the development of a formal coordination structure between the United States Forest Service (USFS), the Lincoln National Forest, the community of Cloudcroft, New Mexico State University, the University of Colorado at Denver, and stakeholders interested in developing and implementing a sustainable community into the 21st century.

Once the formal structure was developed, the group started its planning process through the collection of data from residents, visitors to the Cloudcroft community and Lincoln National Forest users. Critical forest and community issues were identified through the information collected.

Once the issues were identified, a community-wide search conference was held to strategically plan for the future. Comprehensive action plans resulted and implementation teams are now working on making the plans reality. One component of the implementation is the development of a sustainable targeted marketing program. The program is designed to attract those who have values similar to the community, those who appreciate the natural environment and are interested in conserving it. Maximizing economic returns is also important in the development of these marketing strategies.

As part of the planning process, a monitoring system is being developed. The system is designed to identify market changes and to measure the overall health of the community. Thus, enhancing the ability to quickly adjust both forest and community tourism practices and tourism infrastructure if changes are needed in recreational forest use.

The program was initiated in the Fall of 1994 and continues to gain community support and momentum. It has proven to enhance community relationships between the Forest Service and the community and is a model that fosters sustainable development and will benefit the community and the forest for decades to come.

Many of our public lands have the capacity for additional recreational and tourism development; however, this capacity will soon be exhausted. Stronger management practices are needed to sustain tourism and recreation on our public lands over future decades. The strategies that are needed to develop sustainable tourism are controversial and difficult to implement. Many of the management practices require a re-evaluation of critical public policy issues–the extent users pay for the resource, access limitation, fairness in allocation of public resources, and regulation and control–that we have ignored for decades.

If we do not address these issues soon, we will irretrievably damage the very resource that attracts users and visitors to an area Damaged public lends will affect community jobs, and incomes for local citizens. Once the damage is done, it will be difficult to restore it to its original state. It is time for the land management agencies and those interested in the long-term health of the tourism and recreation industry to begin the process of developing and adopting management practices that will provide a sustainable tourism industry into the 21st century.

COPYRIGHT 1996 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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