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Smoke & Visitors: Normal Numbers at National Parks

Newswise — More Americans are embracing the allure of the great outdoors, immersing themselves in outdoor recreation and indulging in the splendors of national parks. However, in tandem with this growing enthusiasm, the ominous specter of smoky skies looms larger as wildfires increase in size and intensity, detrimentally impacting air quality across the nation.

The peril posed by wildfire smoke is particularly concerning for the well-being and welfare of individuals, particularly when exposed to prolonged periods of smoke or during physical exertion, such as embarking on a hiking expedition to one of America’s cherished national parks.

Matthew Clark, a doctoral candidate at Boise State University whose research delves into the interconnectedness of social and environmental factors shaping people’s perceptions and appreciation of the natural world, sought to investigate whether wildfire smoke dissuades visitors from venturing into national parks—especially those most affected by this atmospheric hazard

In a study published in Ecosphere, researchers revealed that even substantial amounts of smoke failed to dissuade visitors from attending national parks. Surprisingly, the numbers of park attendees remained consistent, regardless of the presence of significant wildfire smoke.

Matthew Clark, who personally experienced the situation, shared, “I have actually lived my data. I had driven six hours to go climbing in Yosemite. When we got there, we said, ‘Well, what are we going to do? We’re not going to turn around.’ We stayed anyway. I am one of my own data points.”

Building upon previous studies that primarily examined campsite reservations and cancellations, Clark and his team analyzed overall visitation data from 1980 to 2019. This broader perspective allowed them to gauge the total number of people visiting the parks, including day trippers and avid hikers who preferred sleeping elsewhere or leaving the park at the end of the day.

Employing an innovative statistical technique called breakpoint modeling, the researchers aimed to identify threshold points within the data. They sought to determine the level at which people might cease visiting national parks due to wildfire smoke, and their models helped shed light on this aspect.

Clark explained, “When you are planning to visit a national park, a little bit of smoke might not significantly impact your decision, but if the smoke levels are high, it could have a substantial effect on attendance.”

Remarkably, the data has yet to reveal a significant threshold indicating a decline in park attendance due to wildfire or smoky conditions. It remains puzzling that visitor numbers remained steadfast, regardless of the severity of smoke.

“We have numerous instances in our dataset where the smoke levels in national parks, such as Redwood or Kings Canyon, reached exceedingly dangerous levels—nearly forty standard deviations above the average—and yet we observe no deviation from normal visitation,” notes Clark.

It’s important to highlight that this study focused solely on identifying trends and did not delve into the underlying causes behind them. Visitors to national parks often embark on longer journeys and invest more time and money compared to those visiting other public lands. Consequently, they may be hesitant to alter longstanding or costly plans due to the potential presence of wildfire smoke.

“We don’t have insights into the reasons behind people’s actions; we are merely describing the observed patterns,” clarifies Clark. “For instance, individuals might adapt their activities within the park based on the weather. We know that when it rains, people tend to choose different activities in response to the weather. They still visit the park, but their behavior may change accordingly once they are there.”

Comprehending the perspectives of park visitors regarding smoke is crucial for ensuring their safety and planning for the future of the parks. Educating individuals about effective measures to navigate smoky periods—such as remaining indoors, engaging in less strenuous activities, and minimizing exposure—can contribute to their continued enjoyment of the parks.

“There are numerous ways to appreciate the parks,” emphasizes Clark. “Even on days with high smoke levels, people can partake in activities that do not significantly elevate their heart rate or breathing rate. Park rangers and managers can monitor smoke levels at various locations throughout the day and provide visitors with updated information on the optimal areas to visit. The key is to effectively inform people about the risks associated with smoke and offer alternative activities that prioritize everyone’s safety. This is particularly crucial for young individuals and those accustomed to vigorous outdoor pursuits, as assessing the potential risks can be challenging.”

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