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Cultural Meanings and Management Challenges: High Use in Urban-Proximate Wildernesses


December 2018 | Volume 24, Number 3

by Betsy R. Lindley

by Maria D. Blevins

by Scott D. Williams


As outdoor recreation increases in popularity and metropolises grow larger, the issues facing urban-proximate wilderness and protected lands will continue to come to the forefront. The issue of a high number of visitors in relatively small geographic areas of protected lands can be found in many popular recreation areas located near large cities. Protected and wilderness areas near large cities create a unique challenge; balancing visitor use with protecting the resource. The purpose of this article is to examine the values and experiences of visitors to the urban-proximate Mount Timpanogos Wilderness Area and to address some of the challenges and possible solutions to these issues. In addition, these possible solutions may be applicable for other urban-proximate wilderness areas and protected lands. The authors of this case study hope to bring some attention and dialogue to a wilderness area in which traditional management styles may not be appropriate. Specifically, wilderness areas and protected lands to which a large local population is connected to place. More broadly, it considers how management strategies can be developed that best consider the cultural connections visitors have to these areas.

Rising 11,750 feet (3,581 m)above Utah County, Utah, Mount Timpanogos is a dominant landmark in the Salt Lake City Metropolitan Area (SLCMA) and the centerpiece of the Mount Timpanogos Wilderness Area (MTWA). Mount Timpanogos offers a unique opportunity for wilderness recreation including hiking, trail running, bird-watching, and hunting. MTWA is located near a population of 2.5 million people (US Census Bureau 2016). The MTWA was designated as wilderness in 1984 and includes 10,527 acres (4,260 ha) (“Mount Timpanogos Wilderness” n.d; Utah Wilderness Act 1984). The hike to the summit of Mount Timpanogos is a popular summer activity for visitors and local residents. It includes a high alpine meadow with lakes, snowfields, waterfalls, and the opportunity to view mountain goats. In summer 2013, more than 55,000 users (per USFS trail counter data) visited the trails on Mount Timpanogos.

From June to September of 2017, use increased to 65,000 users (C. Butler, personal communication, May 16, 2018). This 18% increase in visitation over a four-year period underscores that visitation to MTWA is increasing. In addition, demographers expect Utah’s population to double to 5.8 million in the next 50 years, with 64% of that growth coming from counties contiguous to the MTWA (Perlich et al. 2017). In a visitor survey conducted in the summer of 2013, users were asked about their experience, their attachment to the area, and recommendations for management of the resource. The surveys revealed that 82% of MTWA respondents were residents from counties adjacent to the MTWA, 10% from nonadjacent Utah counties, and 8% from out of state. Wilderness areas in close proximity to large and growing metropolitan areas can create challenges for land managers to uphold the management practices required of wilderness and to accommodate the values of a local population. Managers of urban-proximate wilderness must confront a public that is strongly attached to these places but does not necessarily understand wilderness regulations, conform to expected behavior, or agree with how these areas are managed.



Managers of urban-proximate wilderness must confront a public that is strongly attached to these places but does not necessarily understand wilderness regulations, conform to expected behavior, or agree with how these areas are managed.



Urban-Proximate Wilderness and Protected Lands

As urban areas continue to grow, and large populations live closer to protected areas, both visitors and land managers face new challenges very different from the challenges of managing and visiting more remote wilderness and protected areas. In the United States the recently created San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in the Angeles National Forest is about an hour from downtown Los Angeles. The newly released management plan calls it “America’s most urban national forest in the nation’s most populous county” (Sahagun 2018, para. 6). The 4 million visitors to the area create major traffic and parking issues on the single road that accesses the popular East Fork of the San Gabriel River and the Switzer picnic area. According to Sahagun (2018), these areas “are as crowded as Southern California beaches” (para. 23). Some strategies being used to manage the crowds include changing traffic patterns on weekends, enforcing parking restrictions, and banning camping in areas of critical wildlife habitat.

Seattle, Washington, is another metropolitan area experiencing significant growth. According to US Census data, Seattle is this decade’s fastest growing big city (Balk 2018). This growth is impacting the lands adjacent to the fast-growing population. For example, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is about two hours away from the Seattle area. A permit system was implemented in 1987 for all overnight trips, and more recently, a lottery has been instituted. The last few years have seen a 647% increase in lottery applications for overnight trips, from 2,802 in 2011 to 20,920 in 2017 (O’Cain 2018). The lottery season has also been extended until the end of October. Mason Schuur, Wilderness Program Manager for the Leavenworth Ranger District says that the number of visitors is getting close to exceeding the recommended usage numbers. He states, “They’re kind of loving it to death in certain areas” (Buhr 2016, para. 8).

The issue is not limited to the United States. South Africa’s Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) lies within the boundaries of Cape Town, which has a population of 3.75 million (Population.city 2015). The park is only 2.5 miles (4 km) from the city center and boasts of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a national park, and World 7 Wonder of Nature (Hike Table Mountain 2015). The park averages around 4 million visitors per year (South African National Parks 2015) and offers unique flora and fauna. In addition to the wide variety of birds, snakes, lizards, tahr, and eland, the diversity of plants at the park is remarkable and is threatened by invasive species (Table Mountain Aerial Cableway 2018). Although protected, TMNP is far from wilderness. With more than 350 trails to the top of the mountain and the visitation numbers identified previously, providing for the enjoyment of visitors and protecting the resource is clearly a challenge. In addition, a tram can take visitors to the top where they are greeted by a café with wifi.

A final example is Guadarrama National Park, located 45 minutes north of Madrid, Spain, with its population of 3.3 million (World Population 2018). As early as 1933 the land was designated a “Natural Site of National Interest,” in 1978 a natural park, and in 2013 became a national park (Sierra Guadarrama 2017). The contradiction of balancing the recreational and cultural needs of the citizens of Spain and the conservation of natural resources has been an ongoing dialogue. With thousands of years of human history in the region, preserving the historical and the ecological resources are equally important and challenging. Each of these areas has significant place importance to the high numbers of visitors and faces the challenge of protecting the resource while serving the recreational users.



Wilderness and protected areas that experience high visitor numbers face a range of social and resource impacts.



Wilderness and protected areas that experience high visitor numbers face a range of social and resource impacts. Social impacts include noise, crowding, parking difficulties, and inconsiderate fellow visitors. The resource can also be negatively impacted by high numbers of visitors, resulting in erosion, visible and/or smelly human waste, disrupted vegetation, and social trails. Urban-proximate wilderness areas face challenges, including the social and resource impacts listed above, that many remote wilderness areas may not. Specifically, Ewert (1998) suggests that visitors may view urban-proximate locations differently than they do remote locations. These differing views may make urban-proximate visitors more tolerant of impacts to the resource and visitor experience. Research at a high-use (and not urban-proximate) area at Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park found that although visitors stated that their experiences were not impacted by crowding, individuals did express concern over resource damage due to overuse (Bullock and Lawson 2008). This research indicates that visitors in popular areas are tolerant of crowding and oppose restrictions on access to the area, even as they are concerned about resource impacts due to high use.

In a study of a high-use state wilderness in California, researchers at Mount San Jacinto found that 32% of visitors preferred to see fewer people, but a significant majority indicated that they did not feel there were too many people, or that they had avoided high-use times (Soule and Hendricks 2015). The authors found that many users had no idea they were visiting a wilderness area. Instead, their expectation was to ride the tram to the top of the mountain, and their wilderness experience was more “accidental.” Authors suggest that the attitudes and perceptions of “accidental” wilderness visitors may differ from those who choose wilderness for their destination. Mount Timpanogos, for many visitors, is also an “accidental” wilderness as defined by Soule and Hendricks (2015). Many, if not most, visitors come because of the cultural meaning that the local community has for Mount Timpanogos, not because they are seeking the attributes of solitude and wildness that many wilderness travelers seek.

In a study completed at an urban unit of the National Park Service (but not a designated wilderness), Sharp et al. (2015) found that perception of crowding was lower than expected. The authors suggest frequent users may not feel crowded because they expect the crowds or plan visits to avoid the crowds. They state that managers should look at both visitor experience and place attachment when making management decisions: “By looking at both together, decisions can be made that will help enhance the visitor experience (identifying visitor use patterns) with resource protection (the desire to protect a place they are attached to). This may be of special importance in an urban park where opportunities are limited for outdoor recreation” (p. 207). In addition, the authors raise the question of whether urban-proximate areas should even be managed for crowding and to what extent. Certain areas, such as designated wilderness, have rules and regulations that may impact how this question is answered.

Survey results collected from visitors to MTWA indicated similar findings. When asked, participants overall did not report issues with crowding on the Timpanogos trails. Hikers ranked crowding a 4.3 on a scale of 1–10, where 1 = Not at all crowded and 10 = Extremely crowded. Respondents also indicated that the trails were “as crowded” as expected (73%), with 13% indicating that they were “more crowded” and 14% indicating they were “less crowded” than expected. Finally, when asked how the number of people on the mountain influenced their enjoyment, 59% stated the amount of people had no influence on their enjoyment. Surprisingly, 20% stated the number of people actually added to their enjoyment of the hike, while 21% felt the number of people detracted from their enjoyment.

Although respondents indicated crowding was not a significant issue, they did express concern for impacts to the resource. When participants were asked “If you noticed impacts or issues related to visitors, what specifically did you notice?,” responses included trail erosion (18%), garbage (20%), and human waste (12%). However, more savvy and experienced hikers took note of the issues. One hiker responded: “I am forever amazed at how people in a huge group…can make such stupid choices.… My concern is that despite all the signs, the rocks blocking the wrong way, that people will destroy it until no one can use it anymore.” Another discussed the advantages of avoiding Saturday: “I have done the hike in the middle of a school week and seen only a handful of other hikers, whereas this last time [August Saturday], I passed hundreds.” Others simply expressed that they wanted the mountain to be preserved: “I would hate to see such a uniquely beautiful spot get trashed by overuse.” Users of the trail are concerned about the condition of the trail and the impact inexperienced and/or uneducated hikers are having on the mountain. This data indicates that much like Sharp et al. (2015) suggest, land users do not seem to be concerned about crowding and its effects, but sometimes managers must take resource damage into account when making decisions.

Results of the Mount Timpanogos survey clearly show that visitors do not want their access limited. When asked to rank five potential management strategies identified by local land managers, 46% selected “no change” (the most preferred option), whereas the least preferred was a permit system that limited use (41%). The unpopularity of a potential permit system was a common theme throughout the responses. However, the cultural importance of this area leads the researchers to propose that protecting this area for current and future generations is a valid reason for mitigating resource impacts.

Frequent and repeated use can also be an important consideration for urban-proximate wilderness areas. Whereas some people may be content to summit a specific mountain once in a lifetime, this is not the case for Mt. Timpanogos. Many locals hike Timpanogos every summer. Visitor surveys indicate that nearly half of all respondents have summitted Mt. Timpanogos seven times or more in their lifetime. Local tradition is also one of the main inspirations for an annual hike to the summit. Brigham Young University, which lies at the base, sponsored a group hike to the top of the mountain as early as 1912. Over the next 58 years, the hike became a tradition, ultimately growing to more than 7,000 participants in its final year (Carter 1996).

Place Attachment and Cultural Significance

Frequent visitors to wilderness and protected areas have numerous values that develop during their experiences in a place. Through repeat visitation, visitors develop connections and attachments, creating meaning for themselves. In the case of Mount Timpanogos, it is an important cultural landmark to local residents, and place attachment and place meanings develop that can help explain its importance. “Place Attachment reflects how strongly people are attracted to places, while place meaning describes the reasons for this attraction” (Kudryavtsev, Stedman, and Krasny 2012, p. 233). Williams and Vaske (2003) found two major dimensions of place attachment: place dependence and place identity. Place dependence is functional attachment to a place as a location for recreational activities and includes the capacity of place to meet users’ needs and goals (Williams et al.1992; Williams and Vaske, 2003). Place identity is a more personal construct that is concerned with the users’ personal meaning of place. Williams and Vaske (2003) define place identity as “the symbolic interaction of a place as a repository for emotions and relationships that give meaning and purpose to life” (p. 831). Physical space becomes “place” when people experience the location and assign these locations meaning and value (Tuan 1977; Williams and Stewart 1998). Vaske and Kobrin (2001) suggest that managers and educators can benefit from understanding how people value local places.



Place identity is a more personal construct that is concerned with the users’ personal meaning of place.



The cultural significance and place dependence of users of the MTWA may help inform why users have strong opinions regarding management strategies and actions. When visitors were asked why Mount Timpanogos was important to them, four themes were identified: (1) value of the mountain for its beauty/nature characteristics (reported by 32% of respondents), (2) long-term attachment and important role it had provided in their lives (16%), (3) proximity to home (15%), and (4) its iconic status (13%). These themes are interwoven in participant answers, and often participants valued the mountain for several of the themes identified. One participant expressed how all four themes weave together:

“It’s an icon over the valley. I’ve always looked up at the mountain to see the clouds and lighting throughout the day, it’s majestic… [when] I finally hiked it, loved it and hiked to the summit again a few days later. It’s an easy, beautiful and close hike to experience the Utah outdoors without travelling very far.”

Participants repeatedly spoke of the beauty of the hike as the main draw to Timpanogos. Another participant said, “It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever laid eyes on…every time I go there I’m reminded of that freshness, that beauty, that feeling of pure, simple happiness.” Another described how the beauty stayed with them after the hike: “The beauty of the mountain stays with me long after I have come back to [the] land of paper clips.” One experienced hiker stated, “I’ve hiked all around the world, and the beauty of the upper trail is on par with areas in the Alps.”

As a major recreational destination, respondents expressed long-term attachment and fond memories of the mountain. Hikers reported outings with family as a child, trips with scout troops, and marriage proposals on the mountain. One responded:

“I have grown up on this mountain and have many great memories of hiking, hunting and family. There is no other place in the outdoors that I feel as passionate about as I do Mount Timpanogos…. I have taken my family on it more times than I can count and we all feel it is a part of us.”

Another hiker stated:

“I fell in love with hiking Mt Timpanogos as a young man. When I need a break, it is one of the first places I turn to recharge. The many different seasons that I experience are one of the reasons I choose to climb her so often. It is a place that connects me to my personal past, that of my parents, and to my ancestors who first settled in the Utah Valley.”

As one person stated, “True wilderness within a reasonable distance from major urban area. It’s the closest and most impressive peak in the valley.” Another said, “I live in Pleasant Grove [a small town at the foot of MTWA] and whenever I drive around the valley I can look at the base of [Timp] and there’s home.” Another said, “It is the symbol of where I live. I wake up seeing it every day. Its majesty and beauty look down upon me every second of the day.”

Management Strategies and Implications

Timpanogos is a bundle of contradictions. Individuals love the mountain, it is important to them, and it is a thing they cherish about their community. However, visitors can see the impacts on the trail and that there is a waste management issue. Respondents overwhelmingly oppose a permit system. One person wrote: “Quit trying to manage this. People have been hiking [Timp] for decades. It’s not perfect, but you can only make it worse.” Another said, “I have been hiking it since I was a kid.… I bet I have been up over 50 times. Please don’t do permits. I only hike on Saturdays and it is not busy at all.” One participant offered the idea of education as a solution: “It is important to protect and preserve these beautiful, wild places that we have stewardship over. Rather than limiting people’s freedom and access to them, I think a focus on education would help. Before limiting people’s freedoms, try education!” The acute proximity of this wilderness to a highly populated area, its cultural significance, and place attachment and meanings combine to create unique management issues. The purpose of this study was to find a compromise between the desires of the visitors, the protection of the resource, and the management implications of designated wilderness.



People care about this place because it is important to them, and they don’t want it to be different when they take their children and grandchildren in the future.




People clearly love MTWA, but frequency and concentration of use is undeniably affecting the resource. Given visitor opposition to a permit system, the case studies identified above offer creative solutions. San Gabriel Mountains National Monument is working on mostly passive use limitations by changing traffic patterns, enforcing parking regulations. and limiting the number of cars to the number of parking spaces. The Alpine Lakes Wilderness has taken a much more active management strategy in actively limiting use through a permit system in which permits are doled out via lottery. The two international examples identified previously offer examples of encouraging some areas to be highly used while protecting others.

With visitor opposition to permitting in mind, the authors recommend a management plan that avoids a permit system but instead focuses on education. This plan would require users to complete an online educational tool before hiking and would mandate use of a commercial human waste disposal system for solid human waste. Specific recommendations are as follows: (1) mandate that users complete an online educational tool and maintain proof of completion with them as they hike, (2) implement a human waste disposal strategy, and (3) more stringently enforce existing group size limit of 12 people. These suggestions mirror current management strategies required in similar high-use areas throughout the West. The online educational tool would include a short video to educate hikers on Leave No Trace ethics and their specific application on Mount Timpanogos. Such a prerequisite for a permit is currently in use in several high-use and/or sensitive places on Utah public lands, including Buckskin Gulch (online) and the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument (in person). Users would need to complete the online educational tool and have proof of completion in their possession. This could happen before arrival, at the ranger station, or on a personal device at the trailhead. Since there are only a few points of access for the 17 miles (27 km) of trail on the mountain, the ability to enforce both educational prerequisites and human waste disposal compliance is possible.

Per Forest Service feedback and the data collected in this study, the issue of human waste is a perpetual problem along the Mount Timpanogos trail. Throughout this research, it has become apparent that the management areas that most resemble many of the issues that face Mount Timpanogos seem to be hiking routes that are primarily in river corridors and summit routes, which are characterized by most, if not all, travel and impact occurring in a very narrow geographical space. Many hiking routes in river corridors and summit routes are managed to minimize visitor impact by requiring visitors to pack out human waste. Some local and regional examples of this are certain trails in Zion N.P. (UT), Buckskin Gulch/Paria Canyon and Canyons of the Escalante (UT), Mount Whitney (CA), and Mount Rainier (WA).

Beauty and nature characteristics and long-term attachment to the area are the two main reasons participants indicated that MTWA was special to them. People care about this place because it is important to them, and they don’t want it to be different when they take their children and grandchildren in the future. However, with use increasing every year and the resource being impacted by litter, human waste, and erosion, clearly a new approach is warranted. Finding this compromise between visitor desires, resource protection, the regulations of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the seemingly incompatible current practices on the Mount Timpanogos trails is challenging. Given that all signs point to increasing interest and visitation, it is our recommendation that a healthy dose of “a priori” education be attempted before more heavy-handed – and according to our research – unpopular regulations are implemented. Perhaps a public relations campaign that informs stakeholders that by following these new rules, stricter measures might be avoided in the future. This example of urban-proximate wilderness could offer a lesson for other wilderness and protected areas struggling with balancing high visitor use and resource protection.


BETSY R. LINDLEY is a professor in the Department of Exercise Science and Outdoor Recreation at Utah Valley University; email: blindley@uvu.edu.


MARIA D. BLEVINS, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Communication Department at Utah Valley University; email: maria.blevins@uvu.edu.


SCOTT D. WILLIAMS is associate professor in the Department of Exercise Science and Outdoor Recreation at Utah Valley University; swilliams@uvu.edu.


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