‘Digital footprints’ central to new strategy for finding out post-disturbance recreation modifications


A view of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire burning in the Columbia River Gorge. Photo credit: USDA Forest Service

The Columbia River Gorge is a crown jewel of recreation in the Pacific Northwest, stretching more than 80 miles along the Washington and Oregon borders and offering a variety of hiking trails, campgrounds, waterfalls and wilderness areas for recreation. In 2017, the western portion of the area was burned by the Eagle Creek Fire, a man-made, wind-driven fire that ultimately burned nearly 50,000 acres and resulted in the temporary closure of some of the area’s most popular sites.

Trends show that outdoor recreation is increasing, but so is the frequency of wildfires and other disturbances. The challenge for managers is therefore to create future recovery opportunities in this dynamic environment.

Social scientist Eric White is leading a new study that uses a novel approach to examine the impact of the 2017 Eagle Creek fire on recreational visiting in the gorge. This approach holds particular promise for large areas like the canyon, whose recovery is managed by a patchwork of groups supported by federal agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service; to government agencies; private timber companies; and nonprofit organizations.

This management carpet can make it difficult to collect and analyze visit trends, which are critical to recovery management.

Along with his University of Washington co-authors Samantha Winder and Spencer Wood, White estimated visiting 41 sites in the gorge, mostly hiking trails, including those directly affected and damaged by the Eagle Creek Fire and those that weren’t were affected but would likely serve as backup recreation sites during the closures.

The research team applied a visit model to the sites that correlates visits to a variety of influencing factors, including weather, holidays, seasonality, and the volume of social media shares shared by visitors to each site. They incorporated publicly available posts from social media platforms Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr, along with trail review website AllTrails, into the visitation model to more fully estimate the number of visits to each of the 41 study sites three years earlier and two years later after the fire.

“Our study of pre-fire and post-fire recovery was possible because we developed and applied methods that use social media to ‘track’ recovery visits to discrete locations spread across a large landscape,” White said.

With hindsight, the research team used the digital footprints from the past to retrospectively estimate the extent of recovery at hiking trails and other sites in the years leading up to the Eagle Creek fire. This was important because traditional recreational visit data such as traffic counts or visitor interviews did not exist for all study sites.

The team was then able to use these predicted visitation patterns before the Eagle Creek fire to model what visitation would have been in the years after the fire, when recovery was disrupted and sites closed. Using social media data to predict visits allowed the team to build a complete picture of canyon visits and how they changed over time.

Before these new approaches, the only way to count the number of visitors to recreation sites was through automatic counters, reservation systems, or manager visits. So if managers or researchers wanted to know how visits changed over time or after a fire, they had to have these systems in place for many years.

For the most part, these traditional data have not been widely disseminated in places like the Gorge and other large landscapes with multiple landowners and inconsistent or nonexistent recreational area monitoring practices — meaning that it used to be difficult or impossible to quantify recreational area use and too understand how disruptions and subsequent management responses affected recovery patterns.

“This study shows how using new approaches that draw on social media data can help us better understand the complex relationships between wildfires, natural resource management and people,” said White. “It also underscores the importance of ensuring managers have the tools and resources needed to reopen recreation areas as quickly as possible following a wildfire or other disruption.”


  • The recent trend of increased visitor numbers in the Columbia River Gorge reversed in the first two years after the Eagle Creek Fire, when recreation areas affected by the man-made wildfire were closed to allow managers to assess damage and make repairs.
  • It did not appear that recreation seekers visited other neighboring sites in the gorge, which remained open during the temporary closure – a phenomenon known as “site substitution” – likely due to an unwillingness to travel longer distances.
  • Before the closures, the western rim of the gorge received the most recreational visits, but during the closures, sites in the eastern portion of the gorge accounted for almost all of the visitors in the two years following the fire—a reallocation of recreational activities with management implications.
  • Visits recovered to prefire levels at all but one site, supporting the idea that losses in recreational visits after a wildfire are temporary.
  • While social media data holds promise for learning more about recreational use patterns, caution should still be exercised as data can be limited, particularly for underused trails, and reliance on data from just one platform is likely to overlook some types of recreational visitors.

The research results were published in the journal Society & Natural Resources.

More information:
Eric M. White et al., Applying Novel Visitation Models using Diverse Social Media to Understand Recreation Change after Wildfire and Site Closure, Society & Natural Resources (2022). DOI: 10.1080/08941920.2022.2134531

Provided by USDA Forest Service

Citation: ‘Digital Footprints’ Central to New Approach for Study Post-Disurbance Recreation Changes (2022, November 30), retrieved November 30, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-11-digital-footprints-central -approach-post -Error.html

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