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Carrying Capacity Banner

At a Glance

    A classic approach to determining optimum levels of recreation use has been the development of “recreational carrying capacities.” The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) (under which the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service operate) took the lead in this task. In 1977, a document titled Guidelines for Understanding and Determining Optimum Recreation Carrying Capacity was developed for the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (now BLM) by the Urban Research Development Corporation under a contract with the DOI. Likewise, the establishment of carrying capacities was legislated through an amendment to the 1978 National Park Service General Authorities Act. The National Parks Conservation Association studied carrying capacities in the National Parks with the help of researchers from the University of Maryland (Urban Research Development Corporation, 1980). The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also utilized the services of the Urban Research Development Corporation to develop their 1980 Recreation Carrying Capacity Handbook. Meanwhile, at the state level, The Florida Division of Recreation and Parks, for instance, has developed Visitor Carrying Capacity Guidelines with optimum capacity requirements for land-based activities indicating "people/unit of facility" which is available online.

    More recent work in the carrying capacity field includes the U.S. Forest Service’s Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) System for Wilderness Planning (Stankey, Cole, Lucas, Petersen & Frissell, 1985), and the National Park Service’s Visitor Experience and Resource Protection (VERP) Framework (U.S. Department of the Interior [DOI], 1997). LAC moves the emphasis from "how much use an area can tolerate" to "primary emphasis …on the conditions desired in the area" (Stankey et al, p. iii). VERP is a "planning and management framework that focuses on visitor use impacts on the visitor experience and the park resources. These impacts are primarily attributable to visitor behavior, use levels, types of use, and location of use” (DOI, p. 9).

    ERDC directed several Corps of Engineers project-level carrying capacity studies in the 1980s. Since then, some Corps districts have initiated carrying capacity studies for specific projects, some generated in-house, others by contract. The majority of the later work has focused on boating capacity. See Program Summary for a timeline and more details. There is a need for additional carrying capacity research at Corps projects. The Recreation Leadership Advisory Team (RLAT) developed a Statement of Need for Carrying Capacity Information.

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