Refuge Notebook: When does 'close' become 'too close'?

Photo courtesy Kenai National Wildlife Refuge "Crowdedness" is in the eye of the beholder: A family in pursuit of a remote winter experience on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge may feel crowded by recreational snowmachiners but may similarly make a lone skier feel crowded by their presence and friendly banter.

The first Saturday in May, Derby Day, my TV screen is happily filled for hours with groups of thoroughbreds flying around the Churchill Downs racetrack at speeds over 39 mph. A quote from a horse trainer regarding the next leg in the Triple Crown caught my attention. “…historically, Pimlico’s oval, with its tight turns, has favored inside speed for the mile and three-sixteenths Preakness, although no trainer wants his horse pinned against the rail in a front-end duel. That kind of close quarters can spook a horse.”


Non-competitive recreational activities on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, such as boating, fishing or hiking rarely involve a similar amount of speed (with the exception of descending Skyline Trail for some folks). But do you sometimes feel the quarters are too close? Do you sometimes become a bit “spooked” when you’re out there recreating? If so, you are not alone.

Many feel unsatisfied with their experience if they are continually vying for their position on the trail, at their favorite fishing hole or for their favorite campsite. And you might be surprised or saddened by the fact that this is not a newly developing issue, it is one that has been studied by social scientists for decades.

Crowding has been a perennial issue on public lands since before the Post-World War II boom in outdoor recreation. During the 1950s and 60s research articles began to emerge discussing the mounting problem of crowding in parks and wilderness areas. Described by Robert Manning, of the University of Vermont (2000), crowding has a social-psychological or evaluative meaning and “… is a subjective and negative judgment about a given amount of visitor use.” In other words, crowding is a personal perception, and depends somewhat on personal characteristics and situational variables. For instance, camp sites located near one another, even when they are all occupied, may not necessarily trigger a feeling of crowding. However, if there is a group of partying 20-somethings active into the wee hours in the site next to yours, you might feel they are a little (or a lot) too close for comfort.

Capacity and crowding are often linked. Crowding is the social aspect but capacity is more often related to resources. Imagine you take the flight from Anchorage to Seattle on a Friday night. The plane is at “capacity” when your flight attendant utters the dreaded words, “This is a completely full flight tonight, folks … .” The resources (seats) are all taken. A feeling of “crowding” might come into play with the difference between sitting in between two people who are quietly reading and sleeping, or if you are next to that someone with an unhappy baby for 3 hours. In this example, there’s a reasonable expectation the flight could be full. The variable that tips the scale towards the feeling of crowding is the sad child.

In the outdoors there are expectations as well. A study conducted by G.H. Stankey (1973) in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota found that canoeists disliked encountering motorboats, were less resentful of motorized canoes, but could tolerate other canoeists. Behaviors of other recreationists in the area, in this case, motor or non-motor users, plays a big part in the quality of the experience for the visitor. If behaviors are similar to your own, perception of crowding is reduced.   

If you decide to strap on your pack, leash up the dog and strike out on a remote trail to find some solitude, you might discover that if you encounter merely one additional hiker, your perception of the quality of that hike changed greatly. If you run into a cranky parent trying to wrangle two wild kids, you might feel quite crowded, while in all actuality, capacity on that trail was low. Your expectation was for a quiet, undisturbed hike. Your experience was compromised by somebody else who was presumably trying to do the same.   

Crowding is a concern to not only the visitors, but also land managers (I knew you were waiting for me to get to my point). In 2004-2005, Kenai Refuge, through a series of scoping meetings, heard from you, our public, on a number of significant issues. Crowding in the Swanson River/Swan Lake Canoe Trails (wilderness area) and on the Kenai River were important to you and within our Comprehensive Conservation Plan we addressed those concerns by developing group limits and commercial visitor services permit limits respectively.

The take home message here is that we all need to work on our recreation issues. We all love the Kenai Peninsula and the recreation it supports, but we all have differing perspectives and limits or thresholds. Crowding continues to be an issue that will need to be addressed, so when you see a notice of a public meeting to talk about issues on lands and waters that have meaning to you, join in and let’s all work on viable, constructive and collaborative solutions to our growing problem(s). Let your voice be heard, and let your ears listen.

Janet Schmidt is the Supervisory Park Ranger for Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the Refuge at or