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As outdoor recreation surges, a new survey reveals a 'stewardship gap'

Volunteers performing trail maintenance on public lands near Kanab, Utah.
Bureau of Land Management
Flickr Creative Commons
Volunteers performing trail maintenance on public lands near Kanab, Utah.

News brief:

The world of outdoor recreation needs more stewards, according to a new report from Montana-based GPS mapping company OnX.

A record number of people are participating in recreation activities like hiking, biking and climbing. The report shows that this surge in interest is changing people’s experiences on public lands, sometimes for the worse.

“Places are getting more crowded. There's more litter. Trailheads are overflowing. But then even more importantly, our lands are starting to see degradation,” said Becky Marcelliano, a marketing manager at OnX.

OnX surveyed more than 2,000 recreationists and found that an overwhelming majority of people both use public lands and want to preserve them. Yet most people aren’t actively helping to maintain these landscapes and ensure access to the outdoor opportunities they enjoy.

Seventy-seven percent of recreationists get outside more than 12 times a year, yet just 19 percent participate annually in outdoor stewardship – defined as supporting a cause through donations, volunteering or advocacy. Marcelliano said this “stewardship gap” is troubling, especially as more people use public lands.

“While we've seen this incredible surge of getting more people outside, we now need to figure out how to really instill this ethos of responsible recreation in everyone,” she said. “If we aren't doing our part collectively, those lands suffer and they get degraded – and they then do become under threat.”

Marcelliano said there are many ways to close the gap, including mentorship and education programs. She noted that younger generations – especially those who get to enjoy nature early in their life – are more likely to engage in stewardship.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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