Strategies for Visitor Use Management

Crew members from the American Conservation Experience, supervised by a PCTA technical advisor, work to open an alternate trail for the PCT to bypass a fire closure in Southern California.

We work to curb human-caused impacts along the trail corridor. The term Visitor Use Management (VUM) refers to the strategies and tools for achieving and maintaining desired conditions and experiences in a given setting.

Managing visitor access and use for recreational benefits and resource protection is inherently complex. It requires that managers analyze not only the number of visitors but also where they go, what they do, their impacts on resources and visitor experiences, and the underlying causes of those impacts. Managers must acknowledge the dynamic nature of visitor use, the vulnerabilities of natural and cultural resources, and the need to be responsive to changing conditions.

Proactively planning for visitor use maximizes the ability of agencies to encourage access and protect resources and values. Further, having a professional approach and clear and consistent guidance is important for effective and efficient management of federal lands and waters. —The National Interagency VUM Council

A multi-pronged approach

Our preferred VUM strategies are typically a three-step approach:

  1. Focus on influencing trail user behavior by encouraging Leave No Trace (LNT) practices.
  2. Focus on making the trail more resilient.
  3. Sometimes necessary in popular areas (though as a last resort): limit the total number of users through permit systems.

Because the trail traverses so many different areas with unique challenges, any of these approaches requires a significant amount of research and planning in partnership with our agency partners to tailor them for a specific area.

Here are some specific examples of Visitor Use Management strategies:

Strategy #1: Increase Leave No Trace education before trips start

Many PCT users, whether out for a day or attempting a longer trip, are relatively inexperienced and unfamiliar with Leave No Trace (LNT) principles that reduce their impact on the land. In recent years, PCTA staff and volunteers dramatically increased the quantity and quality of LNT-related articles in print, on our website, and social media to encourage users to protect the trail for others to enjoy. Topics include how to poop in the woods, how to select an appropriate campsite that’s buffered from the trail and water sources, how to minimize fire impacts, how to provide trail magic without leaving unattended food and garbage, and more.

Strategy #2: Talk with people on the trail

Another important approach to providing visitor education is talking with PCT users on the trail. In 2015 the PCTA, the Forest Service Pacific Southwest Regional Office, and the Cleveland National Forest launched the Crest Runner program. Crest Runners have duties similar to wilderness rangers. They talk with visitors, provide LNT education, monitor sites along the trail and perform light maintenance and restoration work. Additionally, the PCTA works with some agency partners to employ volunteer trailhead hosts and rangers. These volunteers help educate trail users and monitor and report sites that experience significant impacts.

Strategy #3: Evaluate campsites listed on popular PCT maps and apps

During the last few seasons, the PCTA, three national forests in Oregon and one in Central California evaluated several user-created trailside campsites listed on popular PCT maps and in navigation apps. While some are new and others have been used for some time, many of these campsites don’t conform to Leave No Trace (LNT) principles and/or U.S. Forest Service designated wilderness regulations, such as camping a minimum distance from water or the trail, and camping on durable surfaces.

The publishers of these maps and apps have expressed an interest in collaborating with PCTA to improve the information they provide. PCTA staff, in collaboration with our agency partners, have developed an evaluation process for critically assessing the campsites listed in some apps. This assessment work helps us address specific sites that may require physical mitigation or other visitor use management strategies to protect the PCT in these areas.

Strategy #4: Campsite management—decommission, improve, and designate

As much as possible, we’re in favor of a light touch regarding campsite management. We know that people want to experience freedom and unconfined recreation. But there are places along the PCT that receive so much use that PCTA and agency staffs must actively manage campsites. This could mean decommissioning campsites and restoring impacted areas to a more natural-appearing condition. It might also mean improving, developing, and/or designating campsites in more durable, sustainable locations.

Strategy #5: Permit systems

Limiting the number of people in a popular area is an important tool for sustainably managing overcrowded areas. Many of the most popular places on the trail have capacity limits during their busiest times. Using a permit system to limit the number of people can be an effective tool for reducing overcrowding by all types of users; whether they’re out for a day, a week or months on end.

Long-distance permits for the PCT are collaboratively managed by federal agencies including the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. At the request of these agencies, the PCTA administers the long-distance permit application process for trips of 500 miles or more on the PCT. This simplifies the permit process for long-distance hikers and equestrians who otherwise would have to obtain many different permits along the trail. While the PCTA does not set total permit numbers or daily limits, we participate in conversations with our agency partners because permits are one important strategy for protecting the trail, the natural resources along the trail, and the PCT experience.

PCTA also works with the national forests and national parks in the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains to address increased use on the section of the PCT that is also the John Muir Trail. The JMT experience has seen a tremendous increase in popularity over the last few years. We coordinate with land managers in that area who administer the JMT section of the PCT in order to balance the numbers of PCT and JMT hikers allowed to enter the trail system at certain popular trailheads.

All of the above visitor use management strategies will only work with the understanding and participation of all of those who love the PCT. Together, we can protect and preserve the rare and wonderful trail experience that the PCT provides.

To become a PCTA member, volunteer on a trail maintenance crew, or get more involved in our work, please feel free to contact us.

To learn more about Visitor Use Management on the PCT, follow the links below.

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