Focus Groups Improve Wilderness Management Efforts. (300 Collective Years of Experience)

By Flood, Joseph P. | Parks & Recreation, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Focus Groups Improve Wilderness Management Efforts. (300 Collective Years of Experience)


Flood, Joseph P., Parks & Recreation


When considering the grandeur of mountain peaks, pristine running streams, deserts devoid of humans, and the serenity and beauty these special places hold for so many, selecting a trendy marketing strategy to improve the management of these areas is probably the last thing that comes to mind. However, managers have a tool at their fingertips that holds great promise for improving park and natural resource management as well as the quality of visitor experience.

Over the past several decades, focus groups have been used primarily for private sector marketing purposes. More recently, they are being employed to address issues in natural resource management (Winter, Palucki & Burkhardt, 1999). Focus groups function under the following assumption: people have attitudes and perceptions about their environment that are often influenced by interactions with other people (Krueger, 1998). Although these attitudes and perceptions are both personal and strongly held, Albrecht (1993) suggests that a number of group members realize that their opinions are often reconstructed as a result of what they hear from others within the focus group.

The Old Way

Wilderness research has historically been conducted using surveys, questionnaires and onsite interviews in attempts to examine visitor perceptions and opinions. These efforts have focused attention on visitor attitudes and opinions toward managers, how visitor experience is influenced by visitor perceptions of environmental conditions, and how visitors and managers perceive the resource differently.

While most wilderness studies have employed questionnaires and interviews to identify wilderness visitors' attitudes and perceptions about the site they are visiting, and how onsite experiences influence their opinions of managers, few have used focus groups (Flood, 1999). Yet data provided by focus groups can accurately predict visitor expectations of onsite conditions and management practices, which in turn, can help resource managers develop successful strategies to maintain quality (Absher, McAvoy, Burdge & Gramann, 1988). Understanding the motivations and expectations of visitors is key to determining whether onsite conditions match the desired outcomes. Focus groups help managers to better understand visitor perceptions of the ecological resources, dimensions of human experience and the types of management actions visitors observe. The information gained through focus group interviews helps resource managers develop and market better management strategies.

Case Study: Flathead Focus Group

Although previously collected quantitative measures provide insight to a specific set of questions, they don't explain why visitors have these perceptions, or how they "truly" feel. After an exhaustive examination of past research, focus groups don't seem to have been used to gauge wilderness visitors. Consequently, it was concluded that assembling a group of long-time visitors for a focus group could potentially lend a contextual richness to the study and provide valuable insights for site managers.

It is not uncommon to find long-term repeat visitors. These "best customers" are a great base for a focus group. That's the core group used in a case study conducted in the Mission Mountains Wilderness (MMW) in the Flathead National Forest in western Montana. Here eight visitors with 20 or more years experience visiting the area were asked to participate in a focus group to share both their perceptions of management actions and their opinions of managers (Flood, 2001). Collectively, this group provided a rich history, addressing both the use of the area and their opinions about the management of the Mission Mountains Wilderness. These long-time visitors possessed incredible insights, knowledge, information and very strong feelings about the area.

Effective Use of Visitor Focus Groups

In the case of Mission Mountains Wilderness, the goal was to learn how heavily damaged wilderness campsites, and subsequent management actions implemented to address those impacts, had influenced the quality of visitor experience and their opinions of the site managers. …

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