Visit NC and Leave No Trace: Partnerships for Improved Outdoor Rec
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We know being outdoors is a safer place to be during the pandemic, but what is North Carolina doing about it? They’re partnering up. North Carolina is the first coastal state to form a partnership between its Destination Management Organization, Visit NC, and Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics (LTN).
Leave No Trace is a set of principles developed to reduce human impact on the environment. Dana Watts, director of LNT, believes this partnership “[has] the opportunity to impact millions of visitors with a message of caring for North Carolina’s diverse outdoor landscapes… ultimately benefiting visitors and locals alike, [ensuring] the health and integrity of North Carolina’s natural lands for the long term.” The principles can be applied from backcountry camping to urban parks.
Below are the 7 principles of LNT adopted by Visit NC:
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Stick to trails and overnight right
- Trash your trash
- Leave it as you find it
- Be careful with fire
- Keep wildlife wild
- Share our trails
While individuals are learning how to protect themselves during the pandemic, we also need to be aware of the increased use of outdoor spaces. Sometimes we can love our outdoor spaces a little too much, a recurring issue at National Parks. While education alone isn’t enough, public agencies and land managers can provide facilities, resources, and policies that help guide visitors on how to keep themselves and our natural areas healthy.
These principles are important as there is much evidence that people are doing more and more outdoor activities. In May 2020, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy conducted a survey with almost 2,000 respondents asking about their outdoor use since the beginning of the pandemic. Respondents were pretty evenly split among those identifying as Latinx, Black and White, and where almost half said access to the outdoors has been a stress reliever during the pandemic. Trail use is up almost a whooping 80% around the country this year.
Yet it’s more than just being on the trail or walkway that people seek, it’s also the safety and quietness that must be present to receive the mental health benefits and positive experiences people are drawn to. Of those surveyed in the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy survey, “78% [of respondents] said it is very important to have access to places to walk and bike that are completely separated from vehicle traffic”. Part of the stress relief is the disconnect from typical sounds, like the aggressive beeping, clanging, and rush of cars on the road. This aligns with research on reduced levels of stress from natural soundscapes and noise reduction.
Additionally, this study shows that where we exercise can have an impact on our mental health and stress levels. When comparing exercising locations, outdoor exercise has even more benefits to mental health over indoor exercising. This is a silver lining as the outdoors has become more commonplace to exercise with the closure of gyms. Even with indoor workout spaces slowly opening in accordance with safety regulations, some people are choosing not to go because they are high risk or don’t feel comfortable in enclosed spaces with other people.
However, in an article in the Journal of Urban Ecology, a recent study shows that reduced access to recreational spaces and facilities has been detrimental to those depending on natural spaces to cope with COVID-19. The study advises that “it is… imperative that officials and planners have access to information concerning changes to outdoor recreation behaviors”. With new information, we can make more informed decisions on how to adapt.
What does this mean for North Carolina businesses? Visitors will need appropriate equipment, interpretative signage, orientation, and awareness. Businesses should keep a close eye on trends. According to an NPD Group article, a market research company, the top five outdoor activities (based on product and service sales) for Americans in August 2020 were cycling, paddle sport, golf, camping, and nature sightings like bird watching. Accounting for the importance outdoors are for individuals mental health as well as community tourism assets, the Visit NC Leave No Trace campaign will provide awareness to outdoor users how best to preserve North Carolina’s numerous natural areas.
Looking to the future, outdoor opportunities will likely remain popular. In Western North Carolina, Growing Outdoors focuses on expanding outdoor recreation in that region, but provides a wealth of transferable tools, resources, and ideas for partnerships. The Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC) also has many resources and ways to support current and potential investors in outdoor. The North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation offers grants and application assistance for improving outdoor recreational areas including trail construction.