What’s happening on the trails? USFS, UW team up to get better information.

New research methods track outdoor usage

Appeared in Methow Valley News

An innovative approach to research is using texting, analysis of social-media postings, and a chatbot named Vic to collect data about recreation in the national forest.

Researchers from the University of Washington have been partnering with the U.S. Forest Service, supplementing the agency’s traditional visitor surveys with crowd-sourced data to provide more finely tuned information about how people use trails and other areas in the forest.

The traditional methods for learning about how many people recreate in the forest and what they do there — asking hikers to register at trailheads, counting parking and wilderness permits, and occasionally sending out a ranger to talk with people — are expensive and logistically challenging, said Emmi Lia, a research scientist in the Outdoor Recreation and Data Lab at the University of Washington’s College of the Environment.

Lia’s team has launched Visitors Count!, which draws on community science to gather information about outdoor recreation on public lands. The data lab’s approach “meld[s] methods from environmental science, social science, and computer science — combining visitor surveys and other on-site data with big volunteered data from citizen scientists, social media, and mobile applications,” the lab says about its methodology.

Signs urging people to participate in Visitors Count! went up at five trailheads in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest this August and September. The signs ask people to count the number of cars in the parking lot (and spillover parking along the road) and to text it to a number posted at the trailhead kiosk.

The text engages Vic the chatbot, which employs artificial intelligence to follow up with more detailed questions, such as what sites can be accessed from the trailhead, road conditions and trailhead amenities, and how much time the person spent at the site.

All the information the lab gathers is publicly available and anonymized. The researchers look at metadata such as date, time and location from social media postings, and they don’t record anyone’s phone number, Lia said.

Although the data lab started working with the Okanogan-Wenatchee forest just last year, the researchers have been gathering data on the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest for five years, Lia said.

National forests select sites for the research. Some want a sample of popular and less busy areas, but the Okanogan-Wenatchee asked Lia’s team to focus on trailheads that attract a lot of visitors. The team is currently studying the Heather/Maple Pass Loop and the Pacific Crest Trail at Rainy Pass, Blue Lake, and a climbers’ route on Silver Star, all on the North Cascades Highway. They’re also looking at use of the Chickadee trailhead near Sun Mountain Lodge. Other trailheads in the study are near Wenatchee and Leavenworth. The researchers expect to add more sites next year, Lia said.

Hikers, climbers help

Hiker and climber groups are also partners in the research, knowing it could provide valuable information for planning and for protection and restoration of vegetation and wildlife.

Jason Keith, senior policy adviser for the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) and the Access Fund, has been working with Lia and with recreation specialists in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Keith is now based in Utah, but he grew up in Washington and has been a regular visitor to the Methow since his childhood.

Getting solid information about visitor use would be valuable for climbing guides and other outfitters, who get special-use permits from the Forest Service and need comprehensive numbers to plan their business, Keith said. More accurate data would also help AMGA determine if there are opportunities for guided climbing trips on routes that aren’t as busy as Silver Star, for example, he said.

AMGA has encouraged mountain guides to help gather data, giving them printed versions of the chatbot questions to use in the backcountry where there’s no cell service, Keith said.

“You can say, ‘I go by Rainy Pass in larch season and it’s insane,’ but you don’t really know the uptick in use. You need as much information as possible — how many people go where, and when?” Keith said.

Since this is still a pilot project, it’s too soon to say how it’s working. The researchers may also learn better ways to use volunteers to collect information, Keith said.

“We just want the best data possible to make the best decisions we can. If it doesn’t result in more permits [for guides], we accept that,” Keith said.

Supplementing USFS

The data lab’s research will supplement the Forest Service’s own National Visitor Use Monitoring (NVUM) survey, which collects general information about recreation in the forest every five years (the 2020 survey has just been completed).

The NVUM provides data and analysis of visitor-use patterns, economic impacts of recreational use, and visitor satisfaction at the forest scale, so it’s much less specific, said Suzanne Cable, recreation, trails and wilderness program manager for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

The Visitors Count! info will help the Forest Service understand visitor-use patterns at a finer level than the NVUM surveys, said Rosemary Seifried, recreation program manager for the Methow Valley Ranger District.

For mountain guides, the NVUM is too general and not collected often enough to be really helpful, Keith said. It doesn’t measure all the uses in the forest — for example, climbing is in a category called “other,” he said.

Sustaining recreation

Lia is a data scientist who cares deeply about the ecological ramifications of human interactions with the natural world. “I think of recreation as an ecosystem service that’s provided to the community by the natural world — clean water, clean air, and also outdoor recreation,” Lia said. “I think about how to provide recreation opportunities in a sustainable way.”

The number of visitors and where they go are key elements of sustainable recreation. Some areas are really busy — and for good reason — but it’s a challenge to ensure that those beloved areas aren’t degraded by the sheer number of people using them, Lia said.

Lia said she’s often asked about the “Instagram phenomenon” — are dramatic photos luring people to certain lakes or trails? Although some places probably become popular because of social media or being highlighted in a newspaper article, it’s hard to know how long that effect will last, Lia said. It’s this kind of answer that she hopes their research will tease out.

Lia expects that their approach will also reveal patterns of recreation during the winter, when trails are less accessible to researchers.

The effectiveness of their research is still being vetted. Researchers need to determine if texted vehicle counts and information culled from social media — Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and hiking and trail websites — provide reliable data about actual visitation and use, Lia said.

If the data proves reliable, it would also be useful for recreation managers, providing timely information when they apply for grants for trail maintenance and management, she said.

Researchers have gotten about 45,000 texts from signs posted at 24 sites, in the Okanogan-Wenatchee, the Mt. Baker–Snoqualmie, and on the Olympic Peninsula, Lia said. They plan to start analyzing the data this fall and winter and expect some conclusions next spring, Lia said.

The response has been better than expected. “It’s pretty satisfying to see the level of interest,” she said.

Ideally, the data will help ranger districts obtain more money to manage areas that get higher use — for resource protection as well as for amenities like toilets or trash cans, Keith said. “We have to make the use sustainable,” he said.