Magazine article Parks & Recreation

The Myths of Visitor Capacity: How Much Do You Know about Visitor Capacity Issues? Take This Quiz to Test Your Knowledge

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

The Myths of Visitor Capacity: How Much Do You Know about Visitor Capacity Issues? Take This Quiz to Test Your Knowledge

Article excerpt


What do the following situations have in common? Jeep tours outside Sedona, Ariz.; snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.; and off-highway vehicles in the Imperial Sand Dunes in California. All these situations involve recent litigation against a federal agency related to visitor capacity.

I have been an expert witness and consultant on five of these cases, and believe litigation will increase because the park and recreation profession is entrapped by the mythology of visitor capacity. Managers believe that the idea of visitor capacity is wasteful, unnecessary, impedes good recreation planning, postpones proactive decision-making and negates an important management tool.

How much do you know about visitor capacity? Please test yourself with the visitor capacity quiz on the left-hand page, then continue with the article.

1. A visitor capacity is a number. True.

Some in the park and recreation field think that a capacity is a descriptive narrative statement or a series of quality standards. However, the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruling on the Merced Wild and Scenic River in Yosemite National Park defined capacity as a number.

Indeed, a visitor capacity is defined as the prescribed number (i.e., the supply) of appropriate visitor opportunities that will be accommodated in an area. A visitor capacity can be expressed as a whole number (for example, 2 cruise ships per day, 720 snowmobiles per day) or as a numeric range (40-50 overnight groups, 20-25 launches per day). The value of a number is that it is clear, measurable, understandable to the public, managerially practical, and provides for predictability and accountability,

2. A visitor capacity is a limit on public use.


Whereas recreation myths say that a capacity is a limitation, a visitor capacity, in and of itself, does not imply any management action. A visitor capacity is a number. A limitation would be the result of a management action.

A visitor capacity is one component within a management prescription, which also includes management objectives, desired future conditions, appropriate uses and quality standards. Based upon the full management prescription (not simply the capacity), a manager selects actions from a suite of strategies such as education, tourism marketing, facility design, maintenance, fees, scheduling, registrations, law enforcement, signage, monitoring, site restoration, as well as limits on the number of people.

3. There is no reason for a visitor capacity until there is a problem.


There is a span of time when visitor capacity decision-making is ripe, surrounded by times when it is not ripe. Unfortunately, park and recreation agencies tend to wait till there is a problem and when the time is no longer ripe. What was previously a pro-active decision opportunity is now a reactive decision problem. The result of waiting to address visitor capacity is that professional decision-making is replaced by political or judicial intervention.

It is best to address visitor capacity pro-actively during an agency's public planning process which allows for deliberate, consultative and comprehensive analyses in an atmosphere with little or no controversy and political pressure.

4. A visitor capacity can help managers increase their budgets.


Whereas recreation mythology reasons that the only purpose for a visitor capacity is to limit people, there are nine important purposes of creating a visitor capacity: (1) as a trigger for budgetary resources and other management actions, (2) as a measurement of the supply of recreation opportunities in an area, (3) as a public safety and resource risk-management tool, (4) to provide predictability for businesses, concessionaires and local communities, (5) for tourism-marketing and visitor trip planning, (6) for hindsight analysis in order to learn from the administrative record, (7) for recreation demand and supply analysis, (8) for allocation decisions between concessionaires and general public, and (9) to help implement a visitor limitation program. …

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