Approximately 250,000 annual visitors to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters have a significant impact on the campsites along the area’s 1,000 lakes in America’s most visited wilderness area. In 1982, Jeff Marion, now an adjunct professor and recreation ecologist, surveyed 96 of the wilderness area’s 2,200 campsites for his doctoral research. He returned with a team in July 2014 to document the impact of continued use on those sites and to measure recovery on sites that had been closed.

“In addition to documenting over three decades of camping impacts, this study is focused on helping managers make recreational visitation more sustainable,” said Marion. An important finding is that the impact of site use levels off. “It’s better to have a small number of well-used campsites than to disperse use and impact across a large number of sites.”

The researchers documented 34 percent fewer trees on campsites than in 1982 and damage to 44 percent of the remaining trees “despite three decades of Leave No Trace instruction,” said Marion, who was a founding board member of that education program.

There was also good news. Nonnative plants were confined to campsites, and the closed sites can recover fully. Marion estimated that 15 years is enough time for a site to largely recover. “You have to pair high visitation with intense management, but you have to do it in a natural way and in conjunction with visitor education,” he said.

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