Wildfire smoke may upend outdoor recreation in the West

Wildfire smoke may upend outdoor recreation in the West
© getty:Cars drive along the Golden Gate Bridge under an orange smoke filled sky at midday in San Francisco, California on September 9, 2020.

As people from around the country flocked to public lands in the western United States this summer, making up for COVID-19-disrupted travel plans in 2020, many have been greeted by a familiar site to westerners: wildfire smoke. After a brutally smoky fire season in 2020, this year is on track to be the smokiest in the western United States since at least 2006. The wildfires are a consequence of climate change (and in some places, forest management practices) that scientists say reflect a new normal for the region.

For people enjoying the great outdoors, and for the communities that serve them, this smoke can have serious repercussions. The rigorous exercise of mountain biking, hiking or rock climbing can be dangerous if visitors are pulling in a lungful of smoke with each deep breath. Particulate matter from wildfire smoke is linked to severe health problems, including lung and heart issues. Health risks from wildfire smoke are especially severe for older people, children and those with asthma and other respiratory conditions. For those who come from near and far to see spectacular vistas in places like Yosemite and Glacier national parks, views obscured by smoke can make the difference between an amazing trip and a disappointing one. 

The fact that wildfire season coincides with outdoor recreation season, and the times of peak visitation to America’s national parks and other public lands, adds insult to injury. While Americans are taking their summer vacations and the snow is melting in high elevations and in northern states, making many of our most scenic public lands accessible, wildfires are accelerating and inundating the region with smoke.

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In research we published last month, which focused on camping on public lands, we estimated that between 400,000 and 1.5 million people per year are camping in the western continental United States during days with wildfire smoke. That research also showed that people who made advance reservations to camp mostly continued with their plans despite the repercussions of bad air quality. The fact that many campers are willing to put up with poor conditions rather than forego a visit altogether reflects just how much people value their visits to public lands. Our research found that campers were the least responsive to smoke at the most popular — and hard to get into — sites.

Nevertheless, as wildfires continue to worsen, these findings may change. People may begin looking at locations outside the American West for their summer vacations. For northern states like Idaho and Montana, which have recreation seasons that last only a couple of months at the peak of summer, communities relying on public lands to drive a tourism-based economy could face dire consequences. We have seen ominous signs this summer for what may be ahead. In Winthrop, Washington, a gateway community for the northern Cascades, the mayor said smoke and nearby fires were a “season-ender.” Summer camps in eastern Washington shut down due to wildfire smoke.

The solutions are not easy. Federal land management agencies can focus on lowering the threat of fire through mechanical thinning of forests, prescribed burns and managed wildfires. The $1 trillion infrastructure bill the Senate passed last month makes steps in this direction by providing more than $1.9 billion for fuel reduction to reduce wildfire hazard. However, needs in this area are vast and this funding will not fully address the backlog of acres in need of such treatments.

Another option is to find ways to shift visitation to locations and times of year where wildfire smoke is less prevalent. Many national parks already face overcrowding during peak summer season. Finding effective pricing structures and other incentives to shift visitation around could be worthwhile to alleviate congestion as well as reduce exposure to smoke. This summer, the National Park Service experimented with a reservation system at some of the most popular parks. Whether this is a long-term solution remains to be seen. But the fact remains that wildfires are worsening, and for those that flock to the West’s natural wonders, making concrete policy and behavioral changes will be imperative.

Margaret Walls is a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a DC-based independent research nonprofit. Her research focuses on resilience and adaptation to extreme events, as well as parks and public lands.

Matthew Wibbenmeyer is a fellow at Resources for the Future. He studies wildfires and how they interact with ecosystems and communities.