The Connection Between Nature-Based Recreation and Sustainable Behaviors

The Organic Act, the Congressional Act that created the National Park Service in 1916, mandates that the National Park Service preserve the natural, scenic, and historic components of the areas they manage unimpaired for future generations while enabling the enjoyment of current visitors. Although there are many governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations that manage natural areas, each with their own rules and regulations that allow varying degrees of human activity, the paradox of the Organic Act is present in many conservation decisions.

How do we Promote the Sustainable Enjoyment of Nature?

A growing body of research suggests that allowing people to enjoy natural areas through nature-based recreation may contribute to an increase in their likelihood of engaging in sustainable, environmentally friendly behaviors.

Scientists studying these behaviors often refer to them as pro-environmental behaviors and use different metrics to define the behaviors. For example, scientists studying recreationists in rural New York grouped pro-environmental behaviors into two categories: conservation behavior (e.g. donating to local conservation efforts) and environmental lifestyle behaviors (e.g. recycling). Another option, used in a study of visitors to Point Pelee National Park, is to group pro-environmental behaviors into place-specific and general behavior. In a study of recreationists at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, pro-environmental behaviors were divided into high effort (e.g. joining an environmental group) and low effort (e.g. picking up liter) categories.

Different categories of pro-environmental behaviors can be affected differently by nature-based recreation. Among rural New York recreationists, conservation behaviors were related to recreation, while environmental lifestyle behaviors were not. Nature-based recreation had a stronger relationship to Point Pelee National Park visitors’ intent to engage in place-specific pro-environmental behaviors than general pro-environmental behaviors.

How is Participating in Nature-based Recreation Connected to Engaging in Pro-environmental Behaviors?

There are several possible explanations for the connection. Early studies suggested that an emotional affinity towards nature, which motivated behaviors that protected nature, was partially explained by past and present experiences in natural environments. More recent studies show that recreation can impact pro-environmental behaviors directly or through place-based attachment.

Place-based attachment is related to how and why a person who uses the place values the setting. People might value a place because it is the best location for a particular activity. For example, a group of surfers might value a particular cove because it has the best waves; they may even be resistant to using other locations to surf. People may also value a place because of the symbolic and emotional value it holds for them, such as a hunter who prefers a particular field because it’s where they learned to hunt.

Different types of recreation can affect place-based attachment in distinct ways. A recent study of rural counties in upstate New York focused on two groups of recreationists: hunters and birdwatchers. Hunting is a consumptive type of nature-based recreation, while birding is non-consumptive. Researchers knew from a previous study in rural New York that both birdwatchers and hunters were more likely to participate in conservation behaviors than people who didn’t participate in wildlife-dependent recreation. Furthermore, people who participated in both types of recreation had the greatest likelihood of engaging in conservation-related behaviors. The second study’s findings supported this, but noted a difference in the way that the two types of recreation lead to pro-environmental behaviors. Birdwatching lead to the formation of environmental place meaning, while hunting lead to sociocultural place meaning, both of which increased people’s likelihood to participate in conservation behaviors.

In some cases, studies have found that one type of recreation was related to higher levels of place attachment than others. At the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, researchers found that surfers reported more frequent visits to the area and exhibited stronger place attachment than other types of recreationists (e.g. beach-goers). They hypothesized that surfers and other “adventure recreationists,” who spend significant amounts of time practicing their skills in the outdoors, would make valuable environmental stewards and park advocates.

How Can We Use this Information to Increase Sustainable Behaviors?

The findings cited in this article suggest that we can increase participation in sustainable behaviors by getting people involved in nature-based recreation. Caren Cooper and colleagues suggest using a variety of strategies that target different types of potential nature-based recreationists, as both consumptive and non-consumptive recreation had benefits for pro-environmental behaviors. Many organizations and agencies that foster nature-based recreation also provide educational programs for recreationists as a way to help visitors learn about ways to be environmentally friendly.

Continued research will help to further understanding about how recreation and sustainability are related. The beneficial effects will extend not only to our current enjoyment of the environment, but also to enjoyment for future generations.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on February 5, 2019.


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