A map of recreation at Snow Lake, Washington, based on social media posts.
Recreation is the most popular use of national forests. Nearly 900 million yearly visits to federally managed lands in the United States support more than 800,000 jobs and contribute $49 billion in economic activity annually, Forest Service economists have found. Monitoring recreation use across vast areas is challenging, but necessary so that resources can be strategically allocated to keep high-quality experiences available for visitors, while minimizing their impact on natural resources.
Eric White, Dale Blahna, and Monika Derrien, research social scientists with the Pacific Northwest Research Station, and their colleagues successfully used social media data to measure recreational use in dispersed areas. They developed a method using geotagged images shared on social media platforms and trip reports shared on hiking forums. They tested its accuracy in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, which is an hour drive from the Seattle metropolitan area, and the Santa Fe National Forest and other federal public lands in rural northern New Mexico.
They found high correlation between the number of hikers counted at specific trailheads by using infrared sensors, time lapse cameras, and manual on-site count and counts gleaned from geotagged images and online trip reports. The convenient, cost-efficient, and timely nature of collecting and analyzing user-generated data could allow land managers to monitor use in near-real time and at sites and scales never typically monitored. This would contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of recreational use patterns and values.
The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is using this research to explore recreation patterns on the trails and developed sites in the popular canyon of the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River. In July of 2019, this research was the focus of a Department of the Interior (DOI), Office of Policy Analysis briefing at DOI headquarters.