Tech: Devices Change the Behavior of People, Sadly Taking More Risks

With a record number of National Park visitors in 2015, more people are facing the challenges and dangers of the wild – and news stories highlighting the questionable behavior of people in the outdoors seems to bear this out.

As attendance grows, so does the need for wilderness managers to understand how people value, define, and use public lands. That’s been the life work of Humboldt State University Dept. of Environmental Science and Management Chair and Professor Steve Martin.

For example, more and more outdoor enthusiasts are turning to technology to stay safe, with many hikers and backpackers carrying a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) in the unfortunate event they need a backcountry rescue.

But what if those now-ubiquitous location devices change the behavior of people, convincing them to take more and greater risks, putting them in danger, taxing rescue resources, and changing the wilderness environments they visit?

That’s the summation of a recent study by Martin, who received a national award earlier this year recognizing his ongoing work examining human relationships with the wilderness. Martin and graduate students, including Kristen Pope and Jessica Blackwell, surveyed wilderness users who indicated a willingness to take greater risks if they carried a PLB. It’s a double-edged sword.

“On the one hand, it may allow some people to visit and experience the wilderness who otherwise might not, maybe because they don’t think they have the skill to do that,” Martin says. “And it’s a commonly accepted good thing for people to connect with nature. On the other hand, if people who truly don’t have the skill or experience to be in a wilderness area think that carrying a piece of technology will keep them safe, or they treat it as a get-out-of-trouble-free card, then that can lead to a lot more people getting into trouble and having to be searched for and rescued, which isn’t a good thing.”

In addition to drawing limited resources for rescue efforts, risk-taking can have environmental effects.

“We found, for example, that people who carry Personal Locator Beacons are more likely to travel into more remote, trail-less areas of the wilderness, which causes more human-induced impacts in the most remote, and most pristine, portions of wilderness areas,” Martin says.

 Steve Martin. Humboldt State University Professor Steve Martin in Patagonia
Steve Martin. Humboldt State University Professor Steve Martin in Patagonia

A lifetime of studying the human interactions, perceptions, and expectations surrounding wilderness earned Martin the U.S. Forest Service Chief’s 2015 National Award for Excellence in Wilderness Stewardship Research.

Martin, who was presented with the award by HSU President Lisa Rossbacher recently, says he thinks it was the applied nature of his research that caught the attention of the U.S. Forest Service chief.

“It gives wilderness managers a better understanding of the issues they’re dealing with and gives them some tools to deal with those issues,” Martin says.

In addition to studying the use of personal locator beacons, Martin worked with Grad Student Kate McCurdy (2006) to determine the use and effectiveness of wilderness food storage. “That hopefully leads to not only improved visitor safety, but also fewer bears becoming conditioned to humans and their food, and then ending up dead because of it,” Martin says.

He has also looked into trailhead quota decisions based on backpacker travel patterns, visitor attitudes about intervention to adapt to climate change, as well as ecological restoration to fix problems caused by past human behavior.

Wilderness means different things to different people, and it is an evolving human construct, so we play a crucial role: developing the very definition and concept of wilderness, according to an article co-authored by Martin along with Alan E. Watson, H. Ken Cordell, and Robert Manning in a recent issue of the “Journal of Forestry.”

“Wilderness management has focused largely on managing human use of the wilderness to control impacts,” the article reads. “Consequently, social science has contributed substantially to the growing understanding of the human values placed on nature, especially those that are wilderness dependent.”

The existence of wilderness, however we choose to define it, has demonstrable impacts on society, for both those who visit it and those who don’t. And understanding how people use it, and how many people use it, helps managers make decisions on what’s acceptable in our wilderness.

The existence and protection of wilderness remains an extremely popular notion in the United States, even as its definition, and how humans use it, may change. For that reason, Martin says, it’s crucial to study these lands from a variety of disciplines.

“There are a lot of human dimensions of natural resources,” Martin says. “There’s as much social science involved as there is natural science.”

Looking ahead, Martin will be working with grad students this year on how to get resource managers to incorporate the cultural significance of protected lands to Native Americans when developing restoration and preservation efforts.

And, in October, Martin will attend a meeting in Yosemite with National Park Service and Forest Service employees to discuss future studies on the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails, where land managers have been experiencing issues with heavy use.


jack-beckett is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival