Tracking Recreation at Bent Creek
by Claire Payne
Bent Creek provides a high profile example of the Forest Service’s multiple use mandate. Located on the Pisgah National Forest, Bent Creek lies along the Blue Ridge Parkway, just minutes from Asheville, NC. The experimental forest is known internationally for long-term research on hardwood management, ecology, and regeneration.
Bent Creek also serves as a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts. Hikers, runners, hunters, and horseback riders visit in large numbers, but mountain bikers dominate. As Asheville’s popularity and population have grown, recreation demand on the experimental forest has accelerated. Urbanization, the promotion of Asheville as a tourist destination, and even its location adjacent to the North Carolina Arboretum contribute to the large number of people who visit the experimental forest daily.
National and international groups tour Bent Creek to learn about shelterwood regeneration, hard mast studies, and disturbance events in the Southern Appalachians. The forest provides critical areas for established and new research plots to study wildlife, stand management, and forest health issues. Meanwhile, outdoor magazines feature Bent Creek as the premier mountain biking site in the Eastern United States. Bike riders are attracted by the large number of trails and mountainous terrain—even by the type of soil on the site. According to one mountain biker, the loose mountain soils add some cushion when he falls, lessening injuries. His only problem with Bent Creek is that it’s too crowded on weekends.
Mike Bowker, research social scientist with the SRS Integrating Human and Natural Systems in Urban and Urbanizing Environments unit, is examining visitation, preferences, and economic values from recreation at Bent Creek. Bowker, as part of a team with SRS biometrician Stan Zarnoch, pioneering research scientist Ken Cordell, recreation planner Carter Betz, and University of Georgia cooperator John Bergstrom, designed a 2-year study that was implemented from June 2005 through June 2007. Bent Creek forestry technician Julia Murphy coordinated the survey, which resulted in 4,171 onsite contacts and 1,106 phone interviews.
Bent Creek, like a number of other Forest Service experimental forests, has witnessed a huge growth in recreation demand over the past 2 decades. “Cross-boundary mountain biking on unsanctioned trails, growing use loads from hikers and bikers, and conflicting interests from a number of organizations makes this study to establish a baseline of research on use and who the users are extremely important not only to Bent Creek but also to experimental forests nationwide,” Bowker says.
Interviewers collected a stratified random sample of site days following the Forest Service National Visitor Use Monitoring (NVUM) protocol. First the annual site days were grouped according to season (spring, summer, fall, winter). Within each season, days were grouped by two levels of use—high and low. Weekend days are typically high, while weekdays are typically low. Hours of the day were also segmented according to two use levels. Key information from the NVUM interview process relates to visitor residence origins and demographics, recreation preferences and satisfactions, as well as knowledge and attitudes about the purpose of the experimental forest at Bent Creek, and the role and management objectives of experimental forests in general.
Data from the study will be used to test hypotheses about recreation visitor knowledge, attitudes, and preferences at Bent Creek, and to develop economic models estimating the value of recreational access to the experimental forest and the economic impact of this recreation on the Asheville, NC, economy. This research will serve as a model for studies on other experimental forests.
The research team is analyzing data and anticipates releasing results in 2009. “The study estimates total recreation visitation over a 2-year period,” says Bowker, who is based in Athens, GA. “There has never been a study of this magnitude for this extended period of time.”