Providing a unified voice for excellence in visitor use management on our nation’s federally-managed lands and waters to sustain resources and quality visitor experiences.
Recreation is fundamental to American culture. It connects people with nature and history, builds healthier minds and bodies, enhances bonds between family and friends, contributes to the quality of life and resiliency of local communities, and inspires and rejuvenates our spirits. Additionally, recreating helps visitors develop an understanding and sense of belonging to a place and, thus, to act as citizen stewards of our collective natural and cultural heritage. Recreation and tourism also contribute greatly to local, regional, and national economies.
Every year, people seek out public lands and waters to pursue a growing variety of recreational experiences. To ensure that
everyone can enjoy the benefits of recreation, managers need effective ways to manage use so these special places, and the benefits
they provide, persist for current and future generations. Visitor use management meets this pressing need by offering a flexible set
of tools and strategies that support appropriate public access to these valued places, while ensuring long-term viability of ecological
and cultural conditions that make quality visitor experiences possible.
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Beneficial outcomes of recreation are plentiful. Examples include educational learning, inspiration, rejuvenation, discovery, challenge, personal growth, improved physical and mental health, social connections, and economic growth at local, regional, and national scales.
Recreation—the “who,” the “how,” and notably the “how much”—is changing rapidly in the United States. Visitor populations are becoming more diverse, with new interests and needs, as evidenced by: (a) expanding interests in new types of recreation activities; (b) an aging demographic; (c) visitation by larger intergenerational family units with different needs for facilities and services; (d) changing preferences for camping and overnight lodging; and (e) higher demand for quality services coupled with an increasing reliance on information technology. Many areas have seen a significant increase in visitation over the last several years. This trend is driven by many factors, including state and national marketing campaigns, low gas prices, rising international visitation to the United States, and new ways to recreate. In some locations, the dramatic increases in visitation levels or significant change in types of use far exceed the design capacity and how these areas were traditionally managed. All of these factors demand new ways to think about visitor use management.
The agencies are working to invite and welcome the next generation of visitors, many of whom may have different expectations and needs than current visitors. The agencies continue to work toward being responsive to societal changes, improving visitor experiences, and developing new ways for people to access their public lands and connect to their natural and cultural heritage. Additionally, many small communities are looking toward recreation as a vital part of local economies. Management agencies are working to balance these changing needs with maintaining the authenticity of the areas and associated desired conditions.
While many positive benefits are associated with the transformation of recreation and the lifestyle economy, the changes in visitation have also led to new demands on facilities and services, operational challenges for federal management agencies, social conflicts among visitors, new impacts on natural and cultural resources, and spillover effects on adjacent communities. Agency teams are working to address the needs associated with increasing visitation and the emergence of new activities.
Proactive planning for visitor use helps management agencies provide access, improve experiences, and protect resource conditions and values. Unmanaged visitor use can inadvertently damage the very natural and cultural resources and qualities that attract people to these areas in the first place. Proactive planning can also create opportunities for stakeholder engagement and participation in subsequent implementation and stewardship activities.
The Interagency Visitor Use Management Council (the council) is a collaborative forum for federal member land and water agencies created to share and
leverage practical, science-based tools for managing recreation on America’s most iconic and valued public lands and waters. The council is designed to
build a common language and institutional knowledge of management techniques, while efficiently sharing tools, training, technical assistance, and best
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Federal agencies are charged with managing our nation’s lands and waters to maximize benefits for public visitors while maintaining the desired conditions necessary for quality visitor experiences. Finding the balance between desired experiences and societal benefits, resource protection, and access is inherently complex and constantly changing at the local, regional, and national levels.
During the past three decades, these federal agencies have gained substantial experience in balancing these often-competing objectives, but challenges remain. To meet these challenges, several agencies envisioned the council in 2011 to share, enhance, and leverage best practices, and to improve interagency consistency of approaches, cost-effectiveness, and the defensibility of decisions about how these treasured areas should be sustainably used.
The council’s mission is to improve visitor use management across federal lands and waters. Specifically, the council provides guidance to member agencies on long‐term policies and tools for visitor use management, including visitor capacity where appropriate, on public lands and waters.
Council members include: the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service (NPS), and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in the US Department of the Interior; the US Forest Service (FS) in the US Department of Agriculture; the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in the US Department of Defense; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US Department of Commerce. Combined, these agencies manage millions of acres of federally owned public lands and waters and coastal estuaries.
Not directly. The council was created specifically to provide a learning network among federal agencies that supports recreation on federally managed or co-managed lands and waters. It is the hope of the council that its work can also benefit from and inform the work of state, local, and tribal agencies that support sustainable outdoor recreation.
The council makes recommendations about visitor use management principles and approaches to its member agencies. Its goal is to increase the effectiveness, and, where appropriate, the consistency in the interpretation and application of applicable laws and policies pertaining to visitor use management on federally managed lands and waters. The council role is limited to formulating interagency guidance and tools on a variety of visitor use management topics for a diversity of settings. It does not have the authority to develop interagency policy or to establish or enforce rules for particular areas.
Yes. The council collaborates with the Federal Recreation Council (FRC), advising its members on key recreation policy and planning issues related to visitor use management. The FRC is comprised of members representing the leadership of the seven federal land agencies that have recreation-related responsibilities and includes the NPS, FS, BLM, USFWS, BOR, USACE, and NOAA. Through interagency agreement, the FRC provides coordination, recreation, and policy development in parks and on public lands and waters, including visitor use management and related issues. The council also coordinates closely with other interagency groups, such as the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council, the Interagency Wilderness Policy Council, the Interagency Tourism Policy Council, the Federal Interagency Council on Trails, and the Visitor Safety Council regarding visitor use management issues pertinent to these groups. The council strives for close collaboration and coordination among these complementary efforts to ensure consistency across agencies in policy guidance and work products.
The council has developed position papers on visitor use management and visitor capacity and also released a Visitor Use Management Framework (the framework). The council is currently crafting several guidebooks on related elements of the framework (e.g., Monitoring Guidebook and Visitor Capacity Guidebook), as well as training on visitor use management for agency practitioners. The council will continue to provide technical assistance to the agencies regarding emerging visitor use management issues and needs. These and other council activities are posted on the council’s website (visitorusemanagement.nps.gov).
The council is disseminating its guidance across the individual agencies in a variety of ways. These include presentations to agency leadership, outreach to field staff, integration of the guidance into ongoing projects, conference presentations and panels, and ongoing responses to technical assistance requests from member agencies. In addition, the council is working to develop training for agency practitioners. Each of the agencies will work to integrate the council guidance into management approaches and policies, as appropriate.
The Visitor Use Management Framework and associated guidebooks provide a broadly applicable tool kit that agencies can apply to make visitor use management decisions at a variety of scales, ranging from changes in day-to-day operations in a section of a park, to the long-term planning of a regional network of land, aquatic, and marine protected areas. The council’s framework also provides a common language to enable recreation and resource management specialists across all agencies to communicate with one another and the public regarding visitor use management.
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Yes, and the framework incorporates the best of the previous approaches, along with lessons learned from years of their implementation. It provides consistent terminology and can be applied flexibly within each agency’s existing planning processes. The framework can be used in a variety of recreation settings, not just in Wilderness or protected areas. The council will continue to learn from implementation of this new framework and update the guidance accordingly.
The framework does not prescribe a specific planning timeline or level of complexity. Instead, it promotes a sliding scale of analysis, whereby the investment of time, funds, expertise, stakeholder engagement, and other resources reflect the complexity of the management issue and the magnitude and consequences of the decision. For some projects, one person might work through the framework to a decision in a few hours; other projects might require longer time commitments by large teams engaging a diversity of user groups. Applying the framework at the appropriate level of analysis requires practice, targeted expertise, and knowledge of the area’s resources and visitors. The sliding scale can be applied to each element of the framework and is described in detail in chapter 2 of the framework.
The sliding scale helps determine the necessary level of effort in terms of investment of time and resources to achieve the desired conditions. If those needs cannot be aligned, it may be necessary to consider alternative approaches for the area (e.g., adjusting the project scope or time frame). Shortcuts often just create the need for more time and investment later.
The sliding scale helps identify the amount and precision of scientific information needed to inform a management decision. Sometimes that information is lacking, incomplete, unreliable, or simply too costly or time-consuming to acquire before action must be taken. In those cases, the legal authorities governing the area may allow, or even require, that the management agency take a precautionary approach and act to achieve the desired conditions in the face of scientific uncertainty. At the same time, collecting scientific information does not need to be costly; the management agency can take advantage of existing research, consider low-tech options, and leverage partnerships and volunteers.
The framework is designed to help agencies examine an issue or opportunity and craft an effective solution. To that end, it is helpful to invest time at the beginning of the process to show how the different elements fit together to improve decision-making. The team leader should explain the value of starting with the “why” (the project purpose and need, area’s purpose, existing information and issues) and the “what” (the desired conditions and appropriate activities) to ultimately shape and guide the selection of appropriate management strategies (“how”) that will then be implemented, monitored, evaluated, and adjusted as needed (“do”). Generally, following this sequence maximizes the likelihood that desired conditions will be achieved, a defensible decision is made, and the most appropriate and effective management strategies are selected. Further, it can be helpful for the team leader to explain some of the challenges that have occurred when agencies haven’t followed a clear and transparent process.
Desired conditions are statements of aspiration that describe resource conditions, visitor experiences and opportunities, and facilities and services that an agency strives to achieve and maintain in a particular area. These statements answer the question: What are we trying to achieve in our management of this area? Unless there is a clear, shared, and measurable idea of the end goal, management strategies are not grounded in any outcome and unlikely to succeed. Such statements typically build on the foundational language that legally established the area. Desired conditions should describe outcomes—the “what,” not the “how.” These statements should be focused on the most important resources and values of the area and provide guidance for a long time frame. They also must be responsive to input received from the public, and be clear and specific enough that managers and the public have a shared picture of what will be achieved in a particular area.
While no single formula exists for deciding which management strategies and related actions are best to implement in a particular area, the strategies must be consistent with the enabling legislation of an area or other applicable laws. The following four questions can help evaluate the strategy: (1) Does the strategy address the specific risks or opportunities in the area?; (2) Will the strategy help achieve the desired conditions for the area?; (3) Will the strategy protect visitors’ abilities to appropriately enjoy desired recreation experiences?; and (4) Can the strategy and related actions be implemented, monitored, and evaluated effectively by the agency?
Each federal agency has policies and sometimes legislation to evaluate appropriate activities on its managed lands or waters. Step 6 of the framework includes guidance on determining appropriate visitor activities, facilities, and services. The outcome of this step provides more specific direction for the types of visitor activities, facilities, and visitor services that are consistent with and complement the area’s desired conditions. The intent is not to provide an exhaustive list, but rather to provide some examples to help convey a broad, more complete picture of desired conditions for the area. It is important to consider the connection between what is appropriate in a particular area and the purpose of the area; the desired condition guides what is considered appropriate.
Many visitors experience public lands through use of outfitter-guides or commercial services. These activities must be considered when evaluating how best to manage visitor use. Clearly defined desired conditions and guidance on appropriate activities, services, and facilities can help guide management of outfitter-guide and/or commercial service opportunities. Subsequently, when selecting management strategies, issues and opportunities directly associated with outfitter-guide operations or commercial services can be evaluated and actions identified. Further, where necessary, identification of visitor capacities can include allocating use into subsets for different types of commercial uses.
No. Visitor use management goes beyond just visitor experience and includes management strategies to ensure that natural and cultural resource conditions, and the visitor experiences they provide, are protected. Also, visitor use is managed to ensure sustainable operations and facilities.
No. The term visitor capacity should not be used as a short-hand when the ultimate need is effective visitor use management through a variety of means. Since visitor capacity focuses on the amount of use, identifying and implementing visitor capacities is just one of many visitor use management strategies available to maintain or achieve desired conditions. Visitor capacity is defined as the maximum amounts and types of visitor use that an area can accommodate while sustaining desired conditions and visitor experiences, consistent with the purpose for which the area was established. Therefore, visitor capacity decisions are part of a more holistic approach to visitor use management and can only be made after desired conditions and other management strategies have been identified.
Managers should identify and implement visitor capacities when managing the amount of visitor use is directly related to achieving and maintaining desired conditions. Managers must identify and implement visitor capacities when legally required. Decisions on visitor capacity should be based on the desired conditions for a specific area and should be directed by pertinent laws and agency policies.
For in-depth guidance on identifying visitor capacities, please see the council’s position paper, Visitor Capacity on Federally Managed Lands and Waters: A Position Paper to Guide Policy, and the Visitor Capacity Guidebook. (http://visitorusemanagement.nps.gov/VUM/WhatGuidesIt)
Implementation of visitor capacity can be achieved through many different tools, which may be used in combination, such as: (1) education and marketing: informing visitors of peak use times to encourage voluntary redistribution of use as well as promoting alternate recreation opportunities; (2) engineering: sizing parking lots or access points based on the capacity; (3) enforcement: enforcing prohibition of undesignated parking outside of established parking areas; and (4) managing access: using tools such as required reservation systems.
No. The framework encourages using management strategies that effectively address the specific visitor use needs of a project. Even when establishing a visitor capacity, a variety of more indirect management strategies (e.g., pre-trip information, outdoor ethics, and facility designs) may be implemented to ensure that use remains within the capacity. However, there are times when regulations, permitting, or use rationing may be needed to protect desired conditions and achieve the legislative purpose of the area.
If desired conditions are being maintained or if conditions are trending toward desired conditions, then management strategies are likely working. Central to this assessment are clearly articulated desired conditions, coupled with a robust monitoring and evaluation program for the area. Please see the Monitoring Guidebook for more guidance. (http://visitorusemanagement.nps.gov/VUM/Framework)
The framework is being applied to ongoing projects among the member agencies. There are case studies in the framework and also in the accompanying guidebooks that illustrate the application of the framework. Contact your agency’s council members for more information on some of the recent projects that applied the framework.
The council benefits both managers and visitors of the nation’s public lands and waters by providing a collaborative forum and tools for federal agencies to tackle common challenges of sustainable recreation. The council’s products, trainings, and outreach make it possible for agencies to facilitate and sustain public access and use of valued, and often vulnerable, land and water resources.
The council’s efforts also directly benefit recreational users and other stakeholders by providing an objective, science-based, consistent, and transparent process for their engagement with agency decisions that affect how, where, and at what intensities we all access and enjoy the natural and cultural treasures of our nation’s lands and waters.
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Most projects and management decisions will benefit from some level of public participation. It is important to build trust and move a decision or action forward through two-way communication with stakeholders, partner groups, and government agencies, such as tribes, counties, and towns. If there is little stakeholder interest, it is still important to understand how they feel about or perceive the issues and/or actions associated with the project. The sliding scale, when used with applicable laws and regulations, helps to assess the level of public participation that is appropriate for the project.
Yes. This framework is designed to be highly flexible and adaptable to local situations and needs. The council hopes that the framework is useful and can inform the work of state, local, and tribal agencies that support recreation.
Yes. This framework is designed to be highly flexible and adaptable to diverse situations and needs. The framework has been developed in close coordination with other councils and agency programs that provide direction to designated areas such as Wild and Scenic Rivers, Wilderness, and National Trails. The framework document and subsequent guidebooks include a variety of examples and case studies to illustrate its application to a variety of settings and needs. The legislation that established these designated areas is incorporated into the framework from the onset (e.g., refer to step 2 of element one) and guides the execution of the subsequent steps.
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