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The Leopold Institute published a handbook describing wilderness recreation use estimation methods and systems. The citation, abstract, and introduction are included below. You can also download the handbook from:

Based on this handbook, we have conducted five wilderness use estimation workshops - in Alaska, California, Georgia, and Nevada. For more information, contact:
Brian Glaspell -  or
Vita Wright -  or
Alan Watson -

View our Recreation Use Estimation Handbook presentation - (pdf format)
(NOTE: If you do not have Adobe Acrobat installed on your computer, you can view this presentation by downloading Acrobat Reader).

Another useful resource is the MTDC Report: Techniques and equipment for gathering visitor use data on recreation sites (Yuan et al. 1995).

Watson, Alan E.; Cole, David N.; Turner, David L.; Reynolds, Penny S. 2000. Wilderness recreation use estimation: a handbook of methods and systems. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-56. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 198 p.


Documented evidence shows that managers of units within the U.S. National Wilderness Preservation System are making decisions without reliable information on the amount, types, and distribution of recreation use occurring at these areas. There are clear legislative mandates and agency policies that direct managers to monitor trends in use and conditions in wilderness. This report is specifically designed as a convenient resource for wilderness managers and others who have the responsibility of monitoring and describing visitor use in wilderness. It is a comprehensive manual on estimation techniques and procedures that are essential to appropriately and accurately measure visitor use-related characteristics and conditions. Guidelines enable the manager to evaluate options and decide on a use estimation system that meets the needs of a specific area and set of circumstances. This handbook provides, in a single source, all relevant information on setting objectives, making decisions about what to monitor, developing a sampling plan, collecting the needed information, and computing basic statistics to provide input into management decisions. The user should have mathematical abilities at least through algebra; knowledge of statistics and calculus would be helpful.


As stipulated by the Wilderness Act of 1964 (PL 88-577), the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) is established " secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness." This legislation now applies to more than 625 separate areas in 44 states, comprising nearly 105 million acres. The goal of the Act may be stated briefly as the mandate to manage wilderness areas so as to leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness. Each individual area is to be managed to maintain natural conditions and provide opportunities for "solitude" or "primitive and unconfined" recreation experiences. However, it is apparent that these two responsibilities of management may become contradictory: to maintain or minimize loss of ecological integrity (and ensure quality solitude experiences), while simultaneously providing access for human use and enjoyment for unconfined experiences.

Although human use is part of the wilderness mandate, human use nevertheless results in unavoidable impact on the resource. Even at low use levels, visitors cause substantial disturbance, both to the wilderness resource itself, and to the wilderness experiences of others. Because recreational use of wilderness continues to increase (Cole 1996), the potential for disturbance and wilderness degradation is very great. It follows that:
  1. the management of wilderness visitors is a priority, and
  2. in order to make effective management decisions, the manager must have reliable information about visitor use of wilderness (Watson 1990).
Monitoring wilderness status is mandated in the Act, with the primary goals being to:
  1. improve wilderness management,
  2. improve the acquisition and use of knowledge from wilderness, and
  3. improve assessment of status and trends.
Managers must monitor wilderness use through a systematic description. In general, use measurement has two aspects: first, the inventory of human uses that provide a baseline for planning and management, and second, a means of determining how human use and resource conditions of the wilderness are changing. Evaluation of standards may be performed by cataloging real and potential threats to the resource, and by monitoring trends in condition and changes in demand and use (Landres and others 1994). At the same time, management techniques must not detract from "primitive and unconfined" types of experience (Cole 1995). Therefore, empirical studies are required for both deciding upon, and verifying, the most effective management techniques for (1) resolving a given management problem, and (2) reducing visitor burden.


Unfortunately, wilderness use has been, and continues to be, inadequately measured and described. A recent survey of wilderness managers (comprising 423 out of a total of 440 wilderness areas) reported that 63 percent relied on "best guesses" to estimate visitor use. Only 16 percent reported that they used any sort of systematic procedure for determining amount of use; an additional 22 percent reported that they made estimates based on "frequent field observation" (McClaran and Cole 1993).

There are several reasons why wilderness use is not assessed adequately:
  1. Difficulty in quantifying and measuring wilderness use. Lack of funding is the most common problem facing managers. Apart from financial considerations, logistic problems result from the size of the area, number of access points and relative ease of accessibility, the amount of visitor use (for example, low numbers are difficult to detect), the type of visitor use, and the amount of resources (personnel, time) available to monitor use.
  2. Little or no coordination across wilderness areas. NWPS comprises extremely diverse units that vary in ecosystem type, geographical location, unit size, use, and perceived benefits. Furthermore, administration is divided among four different federal agencies: the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture, and the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of The Interior. As a result, there is a lack of unanimity in purpose; perceived management goals will differ widely between units.
  3. Lack of quantitative and practical skills. Managers have no training on techniques and processes available for collecting and analyzing data.
  4. Lack of decision-making and judgment skills. Employment of any given technique requires that the manager decide between competing restrictions and priorities with respect to study objectives, desired level of accuracy, availability of personnel, time commitment, acceptable visitor burden, and cost. Managers may lack knowledge of the various options available for the most appropriate and cost-effective techniques. With little or no reliable wilderness use information, managers cannot adequately judge resource condition trends. Visitor opinions alone are inadequate for evaluation purposes; there may be little agreement between visitor perceptions and the actual condition of the resource, or even on the conditions that determine "primitive and unconfined" experiences. Quality wilderness use information is absolutely essential for examining and testing the various tenets, principles, and dogmas of wilderness management; for optimal management of the resource, it is critical to distinguish management principles which have been empirically verified from those which have never been tested, and are based on nothing more than "authoritative opinions" (Cole 1995).


To many managers, a use estimation "system" is nothing more than some kind of measurement technique: a mechanical counter, a permit, or a self-registration station. Measurement techniques alone do not constitute a use estimation system. Instead, a use estimation "system" is a conceptual structure, comprising five essential steps:
  1. A statement of objectives.
  2. Identification of the specific use characteristics to be measured.
  3. Choice of appropriate wilderness visitor use measurement techniques.
  4. Choice of the appropriate strategy for sampling.
  5. Choice of a specific technique and/or procedure for data analysis and summary.
If any of these elements is missing from the system, the exercise of data collection is of little or no value. Given the investment in data collection, it is important to derive the maximum value from the data, and to avoid inappropriate analyses, which will generate misleading conclusions. Reliable and high-quality data ("good" data) are obtained, not only by the type of information collected, but also by the relevance of that information to the study objectives, and the accuracy of the techniques used in data collection.

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Cole, David N. 1996. Wilderness recreation use trends, 1965 through 1994. Res. Pap. INT-RP-488. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station 10p.
Leopold Publication Number 282  (Download PDF)

Cole, David N. 1995. Wilderness management principles: science, logical thinking or personal opinion? TREND/Wilderness Research 32(1): 6-9.
Leopold Publication Number 259  (Download PDF)

Landres, Peter; Cole, David; Watson, Alan. 1994. A monitoring strategy for the National Wilderness Preservation System. In: Hendee, John C.; Martin, Vance G., eds. International Wilderness Allocation, Management, and Research. Fort Collins, CO: International Wilderness Leadership (WILD) Foundation 192-197pp.
Leopold Publication Number 251  (Download PDF)

McClaran, Mitchel P.; Cole, David N. 1993. Packstock in wilderness: use, impacts, monitoring, and management. Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-301. Ogden, UT: USDA For. Serv., Intermountain Research Station 33p.
Leopold Publication Number 243  (Download PDF)

Watson, Alan E. 1990. Why is it important to monitor social conditions in wilderness?. In: Lime, David W., ed. Managing America's Enduring Wilderness Resource: Proceedings of the Conference; 1989 September 11-17; Minneapolis, MN 150-155pp.
Leopold Publication Number 198  (Download PDF)

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