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‘Outdoor Renaissance’ Leads to Changes in New England’s National Forests 

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Studies show people experiencing outdoor activities reported higher well-being scores and improved mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Adobe Stock)
Studies show people experiencing outdoor activities reported higher well-being scores and improved mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Adobe Stock)

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 Kathryn Carley, Producer

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Thursday, July 6, 2023   

Researchers with the University of New Hampshire say the dramatic increase in visitors to New England’s national forests during the COVID-19 pandemic will have long-lasting effects.

An additional 2 million people visited the White Mountain National Forest and Green Mountain National Forest during the summer of 2020 bringing traffic, trail congestion and litter.

Michael Ferguson, associate professor of recreation management and policy at the University of New Hampshire, said this often led to conflicts, mainly between in-state and out-of-state visitors. 

“Millions and millions of additional visitors — a lot of times first time visitors — who may not know the etiquette or social norms and you have these people flooding relatively small areas,” Ferguson explained. 

Ferguson noted visitation rates have since plateaued and continue to strain natural areas. Visitor surveys reveal roughly 10% of visitors said they would likely never return based on their experience while women and lower-income visitors were disproportionately affected by conflict.

Many parks nationwide experienced similar issues and began requiring reservations in order to access natural areas, including New Hampshire’s state park system.

Ferguson pointed out the move has been met with positive feedback from both the public and park resource managers. 

“They’re able to hire,” Ferguson observed. “They’re able to get workforce needs filled when we know consistently how many visitors we’ll have and when and where.”

Ferguson said managing the increase in park visitors also helps surrounding communities better manage crowds. He added the pandemic’s “outdoor Renaissance” is here to stay and more studies are needed to determine how to best protect natural areas for everyone to enjoy.