Study Links Recreation, Stewardship

We say it all the time, and now there’s more hard science to back it up: people who identify with the outdoors and outdoor recreation are more likely to become stewards.

That’s according to a recent study from the University of Montana — the latest in a growing body of evidence that underscores the importance of expanding access to nature and responsibly growing Pennsylvania’s outdoor recreation economy. Elena Thomas, a graduate of Montana’s master’s program in Parks, Tourism and Recreation Management, conducted research at Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness, about four miles from Missoula, to understand the connection between people’s sense of connection to the outdoors and their propensity for local environmental stewardship. Surveys handed out at trailheads asked people what recreational activity they were participating in, how often they recreated there, where they lived, and how likely they were to engage in place-based stewardship and/or more general environmental practices like Leave No Trace ethics.

People whose identities were closely rooted in outdoor activity — things like hiking, biking, and backpacking — were more likely to engage in environmental stewardship, such as signing up for trail maintenance or joining cleanup workdays. This was particularly true for people who lived near the trailheads. Furthermore, the study found that people who identified as outdoor recreationists were more likely to practice Leave No Trace ethics.

Thomas concluded that “the more that recreationists identify and build emotional connections with the physical environments they recreate in, the more they are inclined to engage in behaviors that protect, maintain, advocate for, or improve those areas.”

The findings support the philosophy that has guided PEC for decades. We aim to connect people with trails, parks, and their own backyards as a way of sparking a deeper interest in protecting and restoring natural landscapes.

The results also reflect Thomas’ own experience. As a child, she loved recreating outdoors and, after her undergraduate studies, got a job with the Montana Conservation Corps.

“I fell in love with conservation work, having jobs that allowed me to be in nature all the time, and well, the great outdoors,” Thomas told KPAX-TV.

She noted that the study could help guide messaging around responsible recreation and encouraging people to get involved with environmental projects.

Volunteer stewards play an integral role in conservation work. Data published last year by PEC’s affiliate, the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers (POWR), looked at the contributions of 47 community watershed organizations in a single year. Across the state, 8,000 volunteers helped to plant more than 30,000 trees, removed nearly 210,000 pounds of litter, and engaged the public at educational and recreational events.

Investing in the Outdoors

Recognizing the link between stewardship and outdoor activity, much of PEC’s recent work has centered on strengthening the state’s recreation industry. In an opinion piece published earlier this month, PEC President Tom Gilbert discussed the importance of investing in Pennsylvania’s outdoor recreation economy.

“Pennsylvania is working to grow and strengthen its outdoor sector in a way that recognizes the close relationship between economic growth, environmental integrity, and healthy, vibrant communities,” Gilbert wrote, adding that “the more time people spend outside, the more they appreciate and value the natural resources that are our common heritage.”

It’s an exciting time for outdoor recreation, which generates $17 billion per year for the Commonwealth and provides more than 164,000 jobs. The newly created Office of Outdoor Recreation aims to continue that growth in a way that benefits the environment and contributes to healthy, vibrant communities.

In her study, Thomas noted that existing barriers hinder a person’s capacity to participate in stewardship activities, such as lack of resources or empowerment. Many current PEC activities aim to eliminate these barriers through initiatives like the Circuit Trails Community Grant Program, and paddling outings supported by the Pennsylvania River Sojourn program, that make it easier for people to get outside and engage in or learn about stewardship activities. We also host cycling events, such as the Public Lands Ride, Bikeout, and the PEC Environment Ride, that provide ride support and programming to make recreation more accessible, and to build a sense of community around the outdoors.

Registration is currently open for Bikeout, a two-day bikepacking trip in the Philadelphia area scheduled for Memorial Day Weekend, and the Public Lands Ride, a group gravel ride in Black Moshannon State Park is scheduled for Sep. 28. More information and registration details are available here.

Get Involved

If you are interested in environmental stewardship, there are many opportunities depending on your area of interest. The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources maintains a list of volunteer opportunities at state parks and forests near you. You can also contact your local state park or state forest directly to ask about opportunities to support their work. People of all ages can sign up to become a Conservation Volunteer, which matches interests and abilities with appropriate outdoor projects. Sign up by completing the Conservation Volunteer Application.

If you are interested in watershed conservation, many community watershed organizations, watershed alliances and coalitions, local government Environmental Advisory Councils, and other organizations exist. Our affiliate organization, POWR, has a map that offers details and contact information for many such opportunities.

But stewardship can also be as simple as picking up litter you find while hiking, or respecting the plants and wildlife that make the outdoors such remarkable places to explore.