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Smoke Does Little To Scare Off Campers On Public Lands, Report Suggests

Paddlers on Lake McDonald under a Smoky Sky in Glacier National Park.
Glacier National Park
Paddlers on Lake McDonald under a Smoky in Glacier National Park.

Camping season and wildfire season overlap. But smoke doesn't appear to scare off many campers on public lands, according to a new report from the non-profit research firm Resources for the Future.

By comparing campground data in the West to wildfire, smoke, and air quality data over a ten-year period, the researchers found that campground use declines in response to fire and smoke–but by very little.

For example, average occupancy rates only dropped by 1.3 percentage points when smoke was bad. That has researcher Margaret Walls concerned that campers are being exposed to poor air quality, especially since camping involves an extended period of time outside.

"People are learning more, there are more stories about the health effects [of smoke]. So it'll be interesting to see if that changes," she said.

Walls speculated that one reason visitors aren't willing to cancel camping plans may have to do with how competitive it is, or constraints on vacation times.

"You're going to continue to make the trip because otherwise you're not going to get in," she said, since reservations at popular parks are hard to come by, and most have a limited season.

The paper suggests federal land management agencies consider several policies to reduce the impacts of wildfires and associated smoke, including prescribed burns.

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.

Maggie Mullen is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, Science Friday, and Here and Now. She was awarded a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her story on the Black 14.

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