In preparation for a dinner party, a host carefully considers a litany of possibilities. Deciding the main course is customarily the toughest order of business, followed by choosing complementary side dishes. Perhaps an interesting theme should apply. Then there are the logistics … is the table large enough? Are there enough chairs? Might be nice to start with crudites to whet their appetite …
In the process of dinner planning, there are details that no good host wants to leave to chance. Knowing guests’ immediate needs such as food (any vegetarians?), beverage preferences, allergies or accessibility needs, are all taken into consideration as the table is laid for what is hoped to be a fantastic event.
The same can be said that providing quality opportunities for visitors to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge encompasses the “soup to nuts” in recreation management. Somewhat similar to a dining event, the needs of our guests are paramount in the planning process from designing facilities (the main course) to developing ranger programs (side dishes), web sites and roadside signage (appetizers). However, this analogy doesn’t hold up well when you consider the fact that we neither personally know nor choose our invitees — they simply show up. We can’t be sure how many will attend or when they will arrive. Our visitors come with a wide variety of interests, desires and special needs. So, if we do not know them, how do we even begin to anticipate them? In a few words, we utilize research, science and partnerships.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) from July 2010 to August 2011 to collect data on visitor experiences on 53 refuges across the National Wildlife Refuge System. USGS’s mission is to integrate biological, social, and economic research so that natural resource professionals can use the resulting survey information to make informed decisions.
The survey indicates that the majority of visitors to the Kenai Refuge enjoy the activity of hiking (58 precent), followed closely by wildlife observation, photography and fishing. Most hear about us (aka the invitation) through friends and relatives (47 precent) followed by viewing highway signs and reading information we publish.
It was satisfying for us to learn that over 90 precent of those surveyed are pleased with the opportunities we provide at the Refuge, our employees, our conservation practices and the information we deliver. Most (71 precent) of our visitors are personally concerned about the effects of climate change and are interested in receiving more information from the Refuge regarding that research.
A second survey in 2011 specifically centered on the theme of more successfully engaging our visitors in a climate change dialogue. A collaborative effort between the Kenai Fjords National Park, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, National Science Foundation, and Colorado State University, this survey offers additional “personal” information and suggests some interesting differences between National Park and Refuge visitors.
For instance, visitor gender is evenly distributed in the Park data, but Refuge data show 3 males for every 2 females. Politically, Park visitors are evenly distributed between Democrats and Republicans, but Refuge visitors are slightly more conservative. With respect to ethnicity, 78 precent of Park visitors are Caucasian, while 86 precent of Refuge visitors are Caucasian. A majority of all visitors (51 precent) feel the Park or Refuge is extremely important to them and their family (they really like us!).
The survey found that most Park and Refuge visitors (78 precent) are to some degree sure that climate change is happening. Less than half of visitors (43 precent) think they are very informed about the different causes and consequences of climate change, but only somewhat informed about ways to reduce those effects.
With glaciers as a backdrop on a Kenai Fjords boat tour, it’s not a surprise that 78 precent of Park visitors believe some of the effects of climate change can already be seen, compared to 42 precent of Refuge visitors. However, when asked the question, “How important is climate change to you personally?”, 50 precent of Park visitors considered it “very” to “extremely” so, compared to a surprising 81 precent of Refuge visitors. When asked about their willingness to change their behavior to help reduce the impacts of climate change, Park visitors (69 precent) were slightly more apt to do so than Refuge visitors (54 precent).
So while we have removed a fair amount of “guess” about our visitors through research, it is still true that many are from outside of Alaska and we don’t have opportunity for personal, one-on-one conversations. But reaching out through tools such as this Refuge Notebook series, the Refuge website, our Facebook page and occasional onsite surveys, we continue to strive to provide a welcoming table at which to sit and share meaningful dialogue sufficient to acquire that “personal” knowledge and provide the types of quality recreation opportunities that our visitors most desire and enjoy.
Janet Schmidt is the Supervisory Park Ranger for Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.