(Source: Screenshot from the Headwaters Economics "Innovative new ways to count outdoor recreation" report summary)

Many rural counties with vast public lands have experienced economic growth from the growing outdoor recreation economy, but the data documenting the actual number of hikers, bikers, ATV enthusiasts, and other public lands visitors remains incomplete. 

Researchers say that new, more accurate data-collection methods are needed to better inform public lands managers and policymakers of the recreation-based usage of trails as an economic development tool. 

“Agencies have been doing their best to count the number of people who recreate on public lands and trails, even as federal recreation budgets have declined,” said Megan Lawson, a researcher with Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit that works to improve community development and land management decisions, in an interview. “It’s just very expensive to count recreation–it’s tough from the federal level units down to the local parks and land trust level–to find the resources to do it right.” 

Traditional methods of measuring recreation include indirect measures such as counting the rolls of toilet paper replaced at pit toilets or the number of dog waste bags required at trailheads. These methods are expensive and time-consuming and as a result are too often imprecise or inconsistent, according to Lawson. 

“Lack of good data creates such a challenge,” Lawson said. “If you don’t have accurate and credible data to work with, public land managers might not be able to make the best resource allocation decisions in their unit, and the same is true for good information for the trail advocates and users.” 

Lawson’s new Headwaters report, “Innovative New Ways to Count Outdoor Recreation: 

Using data from cell phones, fitness trackers, social media, and other novel data sources,” explores how new technologies can help to provide more accurate recreation user data for a more affordable cost. The research included potential data sources through social media posts, cellphone data, and fitness tracking applications. 

“Luckily, this research isn’t new; there’s been a lot of test-driving by others,” Lawson said. “And we found a correlation between numbers of uploads to apps like Flickr and social media posts that included geotagging when we compared those numbers to trail trackers. There appears to be a strong correlation between posting and phone activities and actual trail usage.” 

The Headwaters report included a case study of selected trails in Whitefish, Montana, designed to study the performance of the new data collection methods compared with traditional methods. Researchers were able to further refine their model for trail usage, as well as their predictive modeling for growth and change in trail usage over time. 

Lawson said that better data collection and reporting could “help to deliver more need-based allocations to rural outdoor recreation counties. These counties might be able to receive more funding for search and rescue, for road maintenance, if the data helps to recognize the extra pressures that outdoor recreation activities put on rural county budgets,” Lawson said.

Gaps in Federal Funding

The federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program provides funding to communities to compensate for the tax-exempt status of federal lands, as well as for services provided by local government to visitors. In rural recreation destinations with low population but high visitation, the PILT funds may not adequately compensate local governments for recreation impacts, according to the report. 

Headwaters, along with numerous conservation and outdoor recreation groups in the West, have consistently advocated for reforming the PILT payment formula to incorporate more accurate estimates of recreation on federal lands. 

“Rural public land managers often have a challenge of increasing demand and declining budgets to support the recreation,” Lawson said. The report stated that from 2010 to 2018 the Bureau of Land Management reported that their recreation budget declined by $14 million, or 18%. During the same period, the U.S. Forest Service recreation budget declined by $49 million, or 16%. Meanwhile, outdoor recreation expanded in the vast majority of public land management units during the same time period. 

“Counting Outdoor Recreation” concludes with policy recommendations “intended to help agencies, recreation managers, and advocates incorporate novel data into planning and resource allocation to help communities and agencies take advantage of the economic potential of outdoor recreation.” 

The recommendations consist of a proposal to create a national model for measuring trail usage on federal lands, improved recreation counts, and incorporating recreation counts into funding allocations.

Headwaters Economics is also proposing a partnership between multiple social platforms, agencies, and nonprofits to better aggregate data and standardize their analysis.