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Justifications for Recreation Carrying Capacity: What the Public is Willing to Accept

Aria P. Brissette, Glenn E. Haas, Marcella Wells, Del Benson


Increasing numbers of visitors to public recreation lands are making it more difficult for federal, state, and local land management agencies to provide quality recreational experiences and simultaneously sustain natural resources. One step recreation managers can take to address this situation is to establish and implement a carrying capacity in their area, yet managers are often hesitant to establish carrying capacities because of perceived public resistance to these policy decisions. Making the public aware of the need for a carrying capacity system at a particular area is an important step in gaining their support and compliance.

There are a variety of justifications that land managers can use to explain to the public why they have chosen to set a recreation capacity limit. This paper evaluates public acceptance of alternative justifications for setting capacities. Eight justification concepts were identified: 1) public safety, 2) sustainability for future generations, 3) natural resource limitations, 4) infrastructure/facility design, 5) quality of the visitor experience, 6) existing regulations, 7) agency capability, and 8) character of the area.

The study was conducted at the U.S. Forest Service’s Arapaho National Recreation Area (ANRA), located adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Data were obtained from on-site surveys of 409 visitors. Visitors were asked to rate how acceptable various reasons were for justifying carrying capacities. These reasons were evaluated and then grouped according to the justification concepts they represented to create eight measurement scales. These eight measurement scales represent the eight justification concepts mentioned above. The level of acceptability for justifications was then evaluated across demographics, trip characteristics, and other selected variables.

The level of acceptability was predicted to vary among the individual statements and their corresponding scales. The study’s results showed that all eight justification scales and their corresponding statements were acceptable, although the level of acceptability varied. Results also showed that six of the 13 variables examined in the study had a significant influence on the level of acceptability for justifications. These six variables were gender, type of campground stayed at (high vs. low amenity), time of stay (weekend vs. weekday), education, stance on the issue of carrying capacity, and concern that the number of visitors to the ANRA would affect ones enjoyment of the area.

This study has important implications for recreation planners and managers, interpretation and public relation specialists, policy makers, local communities and the tourism industry. The results indicate that the public recognizes and supports multiple reasons for setting recreation carrying capacities. The findings also provide a survey instrument that measures acceptability for carrying capacity justifications as well as information that managers and communication professionals can use to develop more effective messages in an effort to solicit support for recreation carrying capacities.


Outdoor recreation, recreation carrying capacity, justifications, personal liberties, recreation rights, use restrictions, access.

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