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Roggenbuck studies wilderness

By Susan Trulove

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 38 - August 10, 1995

Whether or not we use America's vast wilderness, we need to know grizzly bears roam free, says Joe Roggenbuck, researcher and teacher at Virginia Tech. "If that were not so, there would not be 100 million acres of legally protected wilderness in this country."

We tend to think of wilderness as being out west, where the grizzlies roam; but, there are 20,000 acres of wilderness and natural high country in Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area in southwest Virginia.

Two years ago, the U.S. Forest Service asked Roggenbuck to study the uses and users of the Mt. Rogers.

"The Jefferson National Forest managers are interested in providing the best possible experiences for visitors, so they need to know something about their visitors," explains Roggenbuck. The Forest Service is charged with protecting natural conditions of wilderness areas, and providing outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive and unconfined recreation. "How do you do that when you have lots of use and lots of different kinds of use?"

Potential problems are impacts on vegetation and wildlife, and crowding and conflicts among visitors.

College students who were partners in the research sat at the trail heads five days a week, seven hours a day, meeting people as they entered and exited the high country, asking them questions, and asking them to fill out a questionnaire. They collected data from more than 1,000 people to learn who comes to the Mt. Rogers wilderness, where they come from, how they use the area, what experiences they seek, and what their perceptions are regarding crowding, conflict, and appropriate responses.

Findings include:

* 34 percent were day hikers;

* 27 percent were backpackers who camped over night;

* 8 percent were hunters;

* 12 percent were others, such as berry pickers;

* 36 percent of the users were in family groups;

* 19 percent were with family and friends;

* 12 percent of users were by themselves, which is about twice as high as in Montana wilderness areas, for example.

Trips into wilderness areas with family are typical , says Roggenbuck. "The wilderness is a time and place to be alone with intimate others."

With such a high percentage of day users at Mt. Rogers, the challenge for managers is to meet the requirement of the Wilderness Act to provide an opportunity for solitude, and primitive and unconfined recreation.

"It's supposed to be more than a stroll in the woods," says Roggenbuck. "What can we do to encourage visitors to have an experience where nature and silence seep into one's being--experiences that make for happy, healthy people."

What are the perceptions of the people surveyed at Mt. Rogers?

* 26 percent of backpackers experienced conflict, where others' behavior impaired their enjoyment.

* 13 percent of day hikers and 12 percent of riders experienced conflict.

* 36 percent of the hikers said conflicts were due to riders.

* 3 percent of the riders said conflicts were due to hikers.

"Conflict," in addition to behavior problems, includes perceived crowding and perceived resource impacts. "Overnighters' requirements of what is acceptable are more specific," says Roggenbuck.

The Forest Service does not respond to one user group versus another.

"The riders are very attached to the recreation area in that they have fewer substitutes. The Forest Service has to respond to problems on behalf of the riders as well as the hikers," Roggenbuck explains. One possible solution is different trails. Seventy-eight percent of the backpackers and 36 percent of the riders agree there should be different trails for riders and hikers.

Few of the users (46 percent) knew that the area is a "legally classified wilderness," with the result that they favored some improvements that would be illegal, such as building rustic cabins or controlling snakes. Even many of the backpackers saw no conflict with stocking streams with native fish, for instance.

"Educating people about what experiences they should seek and expect in a wilderness is a huge educational job for the Forest Service," says Roggenbuck.

In general, the users favor letting the Forest Service limit use if overuse is occurring--which about 5 percent think is already happening, while 15 percent say use should not go above current levels. Sixty-seven percent of backpackers, 50 percent of day hikers, and 28 percent of riders support a free permit system to control use. "They are willing to give up something to protect the area."

The study will help the Forest Service make decisions and provide for different kinds of user groups with as little conflict as possible.