Loving the Wilderness to Death

Now a research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, stationed at Virginia Tech, Jeff Marion’s specialty is Recreation Ecology, meaning he studies visitor impact to protected natural areas and consults with land managers to make visitation sustainable. By his account, he is one of four such scientists actively conducting research in the U.S., and he has mentored most of his colleagues.

The research studies that Jeff and his graduate students undertake are driven by one central question: Are we loving our parks and wildernesses to death? “Yes, to some extent we are,” says Jeff. “It’s essentially unavoidable.”

That’s a serious issue for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The trail is suffering from erosion and other damage, partly because the trail itself is unsustainable, and partly because visitors tend toward high-impact behavior. Even when they’re aware of Leave No Trace principles, if they aren’t compelled by what Jeff calls “ethical underpinnings” to use low-impact practices, they’ll end up trashing the trail.

Each time a section of trail wears out, the A.T. stewards reroute it, which leaves erosion trenches behind. It’s a short-term fix that causes more damage over time. Jeff sent a proposal to the A.T. community with the question: “How do we make the A.T. sustainable so that we can put thousands of people up and down it every year, and it will be here in a thousand years’ time, and it won’t just wear away?” The result of that proposal is a three-year, $300,000 study with recreation fees paid by National Park visitors.

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