David M. Fisher, Spencer A. Wood, Eric M. White et al. (2018). Recreational use in dispersed public lands measured using social media data and on-site counts. Journal of Environmental Management.
Outdoor recreation is one of many important benefits provided by public lands. Data on recreational use are critical for informing management of recreation resources, however, managers often lack actionable information on visitor use for large protected areas that lack controlled access points. The purpose of this study is to explore the potential for social media data (e.g., geotagged images shared on Flickr and trip reports shared on a hiking forum) to provide land managers with useful measures of recreational use to dispersed areas, and to provide lessons learned from comparing several more traditional counting methods. First, we measure daily and monthly visitation rates to individual trails within the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest (MBSNF) in western Washington. At 15 trailheads, we compare counts of hikers from infrared sensors, timelapse cameras, and manual on-site counts, to counts based on the number of shared geotagged images and trip reports from those locations. Second, we measure visitation rates to each National Forest System (NFS) unit across the US and compare annual measurements derived from the number of geotagged images to estimates from the US Forest Service National Visitor Use Monitoring Program. At both the NFS unit and the individual-trail scales, we found strong correlations between traditional measures of recreational use and measures based on user-generated content shared on the internet. For national forests in every region of the country, correlations between official Forest Service statistics and geotagged images ranged between 55% and 95%. For individual trails within the MBSNF, monthly visitor counts from on-site measurements were strongly correlated with counts from geotagged images (79%) and trip reports (91%). The convenient, cost-efficient and timely nature of collecting and analyzing user-generated data could allow land managers to monitor use over different seasons of the year and at sites and scales never previously monitored, contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of recreational use patterns and values.