Assessing Recreation Impacts to Cliffs in Shenandoah National Park: Integrating Visitor Observation with Trail and Recreation Site Measurements
Keywords:Shenandoah National Park, rock climbing, cliff and rock outcrops, resource impact measurements, visitor use observation
The rock outcrops and cliffs of Shenandoah National Park provide habitat for several rare and endangered plant and animal species, including the federally endangered Shenandoah Salamander (Plethodon shenandoah; Ludwig et al., 1993). The location of the well-known park tour road, Skyline Drive, along the ridgeline provides exceptional access to many outcrops and cliffs throughout the park for a large number of the park’s 1.2 million annual visitors. Consequently, visitor use of cliff areas has led to natural resource impacts, including marked decreases in size and vigor of known rare plant populations. Despite the clear ecological value and potential threats to the natural resources at cliff areas, managers possess little information on visitor use of cliff sites and presently have no formal planning document to guide management. Thus, a park wide study of cliff sites was initiated during the 2005 visitor use season. As part of this research effort, our study used an integrative approach to study recreational use and visitorcaused resource impacts at one of the more heavily visited cliff sites in the park: Little Stony Man Cliffs (LSMC). In particular, this study integrated data from resource impact measurements and visitor use observation to help assess the effects of recreational use on the natural resources of LSMC.
Procedures derived from campsite and trail impact studies were used to measure and characterize the amount of visitor-caused resource impacts on LSMC (Marion & Leung, 2001; Marion, 1995). Visitor use observations were conducted on top of LSMC to document and characterize the type and amount of recreational use the cliffs receive and the behaviors of recreationists that may contribute to cliff-top resource impacts.
Resource impact measurement data show trampling disturbance present at LSMC, characterized by vegetation loss, exposed soil, and root exposure. Documentation of informal trails, soil erosion, tree damage, and tree stumps provide further indicators of resource damage at LSMC. Results of visitor use observation offer several insights into contributory factors of cliff-top resource damage by showing differences in use and behavior between visitor types. The findings from this study suggest that a management approach characterized by visitor education, some site hardening, and concentration of visitor use on durable surfaces, along with the installation of fixed anchors at the top of popular climbing routes is likely to have the greatest success at balancing visitor enjoyment with resource protection at LSMC.
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