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Study: Climate change could reduce outdoor recreation on public lands

A mountain biker standing next to his bike in a grassy field. He is looking toward the horizon, which includes a cloudy sky and a setting sun behind trees.
Bureau of Land Management

Nevada celebrated its fifth annual public lands day over the weekend with events and free park admission, all designed to get more people outdoors. However, a new report in the journal Global Environmental Change estimates that as the planet warms up due to climate change, demand for outdoor recreation on public lands could go down.

That could have significant impacts on Nevada, a state that brings in billions from the outdoor recreation industry every year.

Dr. Emily Wilkins is the lead author of the study, and she spoke about the research with KUNR Morning Edition host Noah Glick.

Noah Glick: Tell me about the study. What led to this work? What were you trying to find out? And ultimately, what did you find out?

Dr. Emily Wilkins: There had been other studies that looked at the impact of weather and climate on specific parks, oftentimes looking at National Parks and how it might impact visitation in a certain park, like Zion, but no one had yet looked across the whole U.S., kind of all [the] different types of public lands, what the effect of climate and climate change might be. So I thought that was a really important question.

My study was looking at all state and federal lands — so state parks, national forests, national parks, Bureau of Land Management lands, National Wildlife Refuges — to really see how the effects might be at a broad scale across different seasons.

Glick: What would be the key takeaways? What did you find? What were some of the big differences among the seasons [and] among the regions?

Wilkins: So across the whole U.S., we were finding that in the summer, as temperatures warm, we would expect to see visitation decrease at many parks and protected areas. I guess, in a lot of places, it’s going to be getting too warm that people are no longer going to want to be visiting in the summer necessarily.

But we saw the opposite in the winter. So in the winter, as temperatures continue to warm, more people are going to want to be visiting parks and protected areas in the winter than they have in the past.

Glick: Based on your modeling, it looks like our region could see a decrease in demand in nearly every season. Can you just break down what were seeing here in our region? What’s the future look like for public lands in Nevada and California?

Wilkins: In that region specifically, we’d expect to see the biggest declines in the summer — which makes sense because it’s already a pretty hot area — with slightly smaller declines in the fall, in the spring, and then no change in the winter in that region.

But this is also only considering increasing temperatures. There’s a lot of other factors that could also affect demand. For instance, population growth or where people are moving increases the demand. More people are going to be recreating if there’s a higher population in the area. So this isn’t the only thing that’s gonna impact visitation to parks, but it’s one of many different factors.

Glick: If demand for public land use goes down because of climate change, how does that impact tourism for states in the West that rely on people visiting National Parks, state parks, coming to the state to recreate outdoors?

Wilkins: Yeah, so this study was only looking at increasing temperatures, but of course, that has many more implications for public lands, including the increased prevalence of wildfires — either just people not wanting to go to places that are recently burned maybe or with wildfire smoke closing places — or other types of natural disasters that are more common.

Now, even things like drought can impact people who want to participate in water recreation or changing species distributions can impact people who want to go wildlife viewing or hunting or fishing. Of course, the timing of fishing might change in the future as the spring runoff happens sooner and the temperatures of streams rise; there might be different timing and locations for people to participate in different types of activities.

If people stopped visiting altogether, that would have a really bad, negative economic impact, obviously, but I don’t think people are going to stop visiting public lands. I don’t think they’re going to stop going on vacations. I think what’s going to happen is we’re gonna see a shift in the times of the year people are visiting. So instead of always going on vacations in the summer, people might go in the winter instead.

I think it’s just going to change the way people recreate, maybe the activities they’re doing, where and when they’re visiting, and I think gateway towns need to be prepared for that, too. Some gateway towns maybe only keep businesses open during the peak visitor season — which if it’s summer [is] May through September — and then they shut down in the winter. So if they really want to capitalize on these changes that might happen and keep revenue steady, it would make sense to keep businesses open year-round or longer periods of time in the future, as the climate continues to warm.

Glick: Reporting on climate change, it always feels like it’s doom and gloom. Is there any hope that you were able to kind of get from this study? I mean, it doesnt seem like its all bad news.

Wilkins: Yeah. I think some types of people might actually have more opportunity to recreate on public lands. For instance, people who really like mountain biking. As the climate warms and there’s less snow, that also expands the mountain biking season or the hiking season.

So it’s not necessarily good for everyone, but I think certain groups of people might have longer seasons where you can be outdoors in — and I think that’s a positive.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited slightly for grammar and clarity.

Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.
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