Forest Recreation: Does Land Ownership Matter?

Demographics influence recreational use of public forests

There are notable differences between public and private forest users, and people are more likely to engage in some types of recreation – such as fishing – on publicly owned lands. Photo by Unsplash, courtesy of Pixabay.
There are notable differences between public and private forest users, and people are more likely to engage in some types of recreation – such as fishing – on publicly owned lands. Photo by Unsplash, courtesy of Pixabay.

Camping, birdwatching, fishing, hiking, hunting, rafting, skiing, and more. “Americans spend billions of dollars and countless hours enjoying outdoor recreation – often in or near forests,” says U.S. Forest Service emeritus scientist Ken Cordell.

But where do people go to enjoy these activities? There are many options ranging from forests, beaches, lakes, and urban parks. In general, there are two options for forest recreation: publicly owned forests or privately owned forests. In recent research, Cordell and his colleagues became the first to evaluate whether socioeconomic or demographic traits affected people’s decisions on which type of forest to visit. Ramesh Ghimire, who at the time was a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Georgia, Athens, co-led the study which was published in the Journal of Forestry.

The scientists used data from the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, a nationwide telephone survey last conducted in 2012. Three groups of forest visitors emerged – those who recreated mostly on public lands, those who went to private lands, and those who went to both types of lands. Cordell and his colleagues focused on the first two groups.

The study confirmed that demographic groups often vary in their choices about where to recreate and what activities. For example, women, elderly people, and ethnic minorities perceived outdoor recreation as riskier than other groups did, and were less likely to recreate on public forests.

Cordell and his colleagues found that in general, ethnic minorities and the elderly use public recreation lands less. Furthermore, these groups are growing quickly because of the Baby Boom, immigration, and the growth of Hispanic and Asian communities. “Our findings suggest that natural resource professionals may need to explore new ways of encouraging these groups to visit public forests,” says Cordell.

In general, people who visited public forests were more likely to have college degrees – perhaps because they tend to live in urban areas. Regardless of education, people who lived in cities were less likely to visit privately owned forests. Income is an important predictor of whether people participate in outdoor recreation or not, but Cordell and his colleagues found that income did not significantly affect people’s choices between public or private forests.

“Ownership type – public or private – is one of the criterion that determines how forests are used,” explains Cordell. “In general, public forests are more accessible and many publicly owned forests are managed with the express goal of providing recreation opportunities.”

However, public forests are also more likely to limit or prohibit hunting, fishing, mushroom gathering, and other consumptive activities. Cordell and his colleagues found that fishers were more likely to recreate on publicly owned forests, but hunters were more likely to recreate on private forests. Private forests often have fewer recreation facilities, such as trails or picnic sites, than public forests and can be fragmented. Additionally, private landowners may restrict access to their friends and family.

The U.S. population is growing, but the supply of publicly owned forests is relatively stable. “Future demand for outdoor recreation could increasingly be satisfied by privately owned forests,” says Cordell. “We found notable differences between public and private forest users, and it’s important to develop management strategies that will serve both groups of people.”

Read the full text of the article.  

For more information, email Ken Cordell at haroldcordell@fs.fed.us.

Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.

Subscribe to our newsletter!

Receive weekly updates