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Climate change will alter outdoor recreation in the West

A new study from Utah State University (USU) has investigated how a warming climate will change the future of outdoor recreation in the western United States. Many local economies in this region rely on money generated by outdoor activities such as skiing, hiking, biking, and hunting. 

Experts at the USU Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism said the lesson at the heart of their review is that adaptation will be a critical skill as climate change imposes unpredictable scenarios on individuals, local economies, and long-term planners. 

“As climate change continues to affect ecological systems, the services that humans derive from those systems are affected as well,” wrote the study authors.

“Outdoor recreation is one of the primary ways in which humans benefit from the continued production of ecosystem services. Through outdoor recreation, individuals are able to obtain a variety of nonmaterial benefits, such as educational opportunities, psychological restoration, and improved physical health.”

“These recreational services are important to individuals’ lives and to the economies of communities and regions that rely on outdoor recreation and tourism. In addition, they can serve as a buffer to psychological stress associated with climate change impacts.”

The researchers explored various factors which will affect the number of people who participate in outdoor recreation, including campsites that are too hot, ski resorts with unpredictable levels of snow, rivers with low water levels, and forests filled with wildfire smoke. 

While these factors have a major influence on outdoor activities, it is hard to precisely pinpoint how trends will change. For example, in the case of a smoky campsite, some people will choose an alternate site, while other will choose an alternate activity. 

The USU researchers have provided activity-specific adaptation strategies that can be used to plan for these consequences.

“Land managers can prepare for climate change by learning the best strategies for adaptation, as we currently understand them,” said study lead author Anna Miller. “Learning from past successes and failures when responding to things like extreme weather events can help managers better understand what’s going to best help them adapt to change – if and when it happens again.”

According to the research, building resilience in outdoor recreation systems will take careful planning. For example, winter outdoor recreation sites may need to expand operations to include warm weather activities to stay viable in a warming climate.

“We may not know precisely what’s in store for outdoor recreation managers in the next decades, but using our collective experience can help us learn how to adapt recreation planning for the most likely futures,” said Miller. 

The study is published in the Journal of Forestry.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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