Breath of Clarity

Impacts of Recreational Use- Carrying Capacity

The first rigorous application of carrying capacity to outdoor recreation came in the early 1960s (Manning 2010). The study was initiated with the view that the carrying capacity of recreation lands could be determined primarily in terms of 1) ecology and the deterioration of areas (Manning 2010). However, it soon because obvious that the resource-oriented point of view must be augmented by 2. consideration of human values (Manning 2010). The researcher went a step further in claiming that carrying capacity varies according to 3. the amount and type of management activity (Manning 2010). For example, the durability of natural resources might be increased through practices such as fertilizing and irrigating vegetation, and periodic rest and rotation of impact sites (Manning 2010). Additionally, the quality of the recreation experience might be enhanced in the face of increasing use by means of a more even distribution of visitors, appropriate rules and regulations, provision of additional visitor facilities, and educational programs designed to encourage desirable user behavior (Manning 2010). The video demonstrates that people perceive the overcrowding at parks based upon car traffic as a result of visitor quantity and park construction. Therefore, the public perceive overcrowding as a clogged up line of automobiles while the more significant impacts of recreation are its detrimental effect on the park’s ecology, such as people trampling vegetation. Insofar as visitors are seeing the simple existence of humans at the park as the problem, they would not change their behavior while on the trails when they do go. As a result, park entrance fees could increase for a reason that the public did not understand they could contribute to preventing the whole time. Resource managers are responsible for diligently conveying the problem to the public so that they understand it accurately and can make beneficial changes to their behavior. Still, the main difficulty is determining how much impact or change should be allowed within each of the three components that make up the carrying capacity concept. Recent research suggests a limit on the number of people that a particular area can sustain can be found through formulation of management objectives, also known as desired conditions, associated indicators and standards of quality (Manning 2010). Still, while research can help illuminate the relationships between increasing use levels and change in the recreation environment, determining the point at which change becomes unacceptable will usually require some element of management judgement, which can and should be supported by scientific information (Manning 2010). Literature suggests that implementation of carrying capacity frameworks have been successful (Manning 2010). Managers used the Limits of Acceptable Change model at the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in Montana (Manning 2010). The resulting plan divided the wilderness into four zones each defined by a series of indicators and standards of quality (Manning 2010). For example, in Class I, the most pristine zone, managers specified campsites should not exceed 100 square feet (Manning 2010). The remaining examples of limits that have been successfully set all involved the establishment of zones and adherence to the recent research. So, limits can be set on the amount of people a particular area can sustain according to a standard of quality defined by the managers. There can be no one carrying capacity for a park or recreation area (Manning 2010). While deriving a limit is possible, it is dependent on how various components of the concept are put together.


Manning, Robert. Studies in Outdoor Recreation, 3rd ed.: Search and Research for Satisfaction 3rd Edition. Oregon State University Press, 2010.

YouTube. “National Park Overcrowding.” Accessed April 10, 2021. YouTube.

Comment by Fenton Kay:

Very good post, Mary. How might you respond to this week’s question with respect to last week’s discussions of Mt Whitney?

My Comment:

The point that carrying capacity varies according to the amount and type of management activity is particularly related to last week’s discussions of management strategies at Mt. Whitney. The carrying capacity is based upon the extent at which the resource managers implement zoning, permit requirements, regulations, education and law enforcement. Consideration of human values, another determinant of carrying capacity, can also be particularly altered through education. While this week’s discussion highlighted that visitors perceive crowdedness based upon the amount of space allocated for parking and the amount of people on the trails, the carrying capacity is not limited and can be expanded through the management strategies outlined in the Mt. Whitney discussion. Further, this week’s discussion approached the issue by placing accountability on the resource managers to diligently convey the actual causes of carrying capacity to the public so they can understand it and stay true to leave no trace principles. The principles we discussed in the Mt. Whitney thread emphasized the need for programs to inform visitors of the regulations and wag bags. Relying on tactics ultimately derived from scientific data and professionals to improve the conditions is a better strategy than just shutting people out from the parks all together. It is up to the resource managers to define a high quality standard and take the necessary action to achieve success. The Mt. Whitney case also highlighted that each location needs to be handled in a customized manner, and this week’s discussion showed the first step of defining the carrying capacity is no exception.

Comment by Jared Hancock:

Great post! You summed up the relevant information regarding visitor limitations perfectly. One thing that stood out to me in your post is your mention of how people perceive that a park is busy. In my post below, I mention my trip to the Shark Valley Visitors Center of the Everglades National Park and how the parking lot was full when we arrived so we had to wait in a big line of cars in order to even get into the park and so I definitely perceived that as a high level of crowding. I typically will judge how crowded a place is by how many cars are in the parking lot so it was very clear to me that the park was very busy at the time we were going. While visiting, I didn’t even think about the impacts to the ecological systems that could be occurring due to the overcrowding. I will say though, the trail that leads to the observation tower, which is the main attraction at this particular visitor center, is completely paved and is wide enough for people on foot, bikes, and the trams that take visitors on tours to traverse the seven mile distance from the visitor center to the observation tower. Because the trail is paved, trampling or trail widening could theoretically be eliminated as an issue all together. Do you think, in this case, that visitor limitations might not be necessary because of that?

My Comment:

It is interesting that generally visitors use amount of cars as a way to measure how crowded a place is. It can also be a way for resource managers to proactively monitor the amount of groups entering in. Of course, there would be some variety in the number of people per car. I wonder whether making smaller parking lots could be a strategy managers can use to deter people away from busy sites that face detrimental ecological impacts of recreational use. I figure people would then just elect to park somewhere else near the parking lot if there are not other hikes with other parking lots around the area. However, maybe they could block nearby street parking off along with strongly enforce the restrictions by mandating violators to pay fines and do community service in the county. Widening the trails is a phenomenal strategy to decrease the ecological impacts of visitor use. People would be less likely to go off trail in the case they were wide. However, since there are other impacts of recreational use aside from the trampling problem, visitor limitations would still be necessary even with wider trails.