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“Insidious equity problem,” UM researchers find

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Missoula University of Montana Assistant Professor Will Rice is the “nerd of camp.”

Spring signals the start of high season for campers, and Rice—more a tent fan than a motorhome—is looking forward to getting out into the great outdoors.

But camping is more than just Rice’s profession, it’s also his vocation, and as a researcher in outdoor recreation and wildland management, he’s studying the science and art of camping, including how campers actually choose their campsites and the seismic changes occurring in U.S. national parks due to COVID -19.

This research was conducted with colleagues across the country and in WA Franke College of Forestry and Conservationfinds the park system strained by the huge popularity of outdoor recreation and struggles to find ways to balance park protections and equitable access for all.

As Rice says of his work: “We study people who are trying to have fun to make sure that they, and everyone else, can continue to enjoy or begin to have fun, without destroying the things that allow them to have fun. It sounds simple, but it turns out that this is a complex puzzle Incredibly—which is incredibly important to Montana and our nation’s economy.”

His research has appeared in notable popular publications, including USA Today, Men’s Journal, The Guardian, and National Geographic.

In March, Rice, along with Associate Professor Jennifer Thomsen and graduate students Jacqueline Rushing and Peter Whitney, They released their latest studyAnd the which delves into the issue of online camping reservation systems and their impact on the demographics of national park campers.

“There is a huge push right now to go online reservation systems,” Rice said, noting that two areas of Glacier National Park are now online for the first time. “It’s just more efficient for a park agency.”

His team’s research found it effective, perhaps, but not without unintended consequences.

Use of Federal Camping Data and Mobile Device Location Technology – Funded insured by UM Population Health Research Center – Rice was able to associate ethnicity and camp income more closely with their ability to access camp sites. The research looked at five campgrounds in national parks across the country that offered campsites through the park system’s reservation system,, and on a first-come, first-served basis.

The analysis found that, on average, campers who access sites that require reservations come from areas with significantly higher portions of white residence and higher incomes than those who access sites that do not require reservations.

The reasons for these findings are many, Rice said, and are based on everything from technology to workforce dynamics.

“To use these systems, you need high-speed internet, which can be a problem for some campers—especially in remote places like Montana,” he explained. “You also need the flexibility to plan your trip six months from now. People with low-income jobs often don’t have the ability to schedule vacations much earlier.”

Being successful in securing a site also requires some level of institutional knowledge about how the system works, he said, which could result in fewer rookie campers landing at desirable sites.

Within the past few years, these disparities have been exacerbated by the rise of startups that can, at a cost, alert customers the moment a campsite becomes available.

Rice said the findings add much-needed research to a growing conversation about unfair access to National Park Service camping areas — a phenomenon as old as the park system itself.

“There has always been an aspect of exclusivity in national parks,” Rice said, noting that campgrounds have been designed by the Recreation Class to simulate suburbia. “And to a large extent they remain excluded.”

However, he adds, as the total number of campers grew, so did the representation of campers from various ethnic groups. Participation in outdoor activities, while not representative of overall population percentages, has increased among Blacks and Hispanics in the past few years in particular.

Rice calls the demographic change a “camping bright spot.”

So how does the National Park Service preserve what makes the parks “natural” while keeping them accessible to all?

We cannot use the tools used in the private sector. We simply can’t raise prices like they do in the hospitality industry,” Rice said. “It’s a very insidious problem.”

One possibility, now used at some Yosemite campgrounds, is a lottery system for long-term and daily reservations.

“We hope to get funding at UM to look deeper into the lottery system to see if it works,” Rice said.

As a tent owner, Rice said he prefers dispersed camping but realizes that “sometimes you want a restroom” and hopes to find solutions for everyone who shares his love of camping in the near future.

He grins when asked if he has a secret list of accessible camp sites, with his inside track in the industry. He does and shares one.

“I love Death Valley National Park,” he said of one of the hottest places on Earth. “But not many people want to go there.”


Contact: Dave Koontz, UM’s Director of Strategic Communications, 406-243-5659, [email protected].

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