Wildfire Effects on Hiking and Biking Demand in New Mexico: A Travel Cost Study

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Place: Santa Fe, Cibola, Lincoln, Carson Nat Forests and Gila Wilderness Area (NPS)

Overview

This study found that crown wildfires that cross trails are likely to have a dramatic effect on use and individual benefit for hikers and mountain bikers that persists for decades after the fire occurs. Prescribed fires are also shown to decrease benefits and use for both groups, but these declines occur gradually over decades rather than an immediate drop in the year of a wildfire.

Relevance

The findings may be useful to a specific audience: trail managers considering where to locate trails relative to high-risk fire areas, and considering how to manage prescribed burns in trail areas. The findings may also be useful for those in fire-prone areas who need to anticipate how recreation and benefits to trail users are likely to be affected after a fire.

Location

The study covered ten sites on five National Forests in New Mexico, selected based on a range of recreation use and fire history. Two of these sites had burned in the previous 50 years, and the remaining eight had not. The sites were in the Santa Fe, Cibola, Taos, and Lincoln National Forests and the Gila Wilderness Area.

Trail Type

The authors surveyed users at trails used by hikers and mountain bikers (except in the Gila Wilderness area, which does not allow bikes). The trails were official, maintained trails in generally forested, mountainous terrain at relatively high elevation.

Purpose

The purpose of this study was to determine how hikers’ and mountain bikers’ enjoyment is affected by wildfire. The survey was conducted by academic and Forest Service economists and funded by the Joint Fire Sciences Program, a partnership of federal agencies that provides funding for fire-related science.

Findings

Crown wildfires have dramatic effects on the number of trips and benefits per trip for bikers in particular, with large effects on hikers as well.

  • Annual trips per mountain biker decreased from 6.2 per year to 0.02 in the year of the fire.
  • Annual trips per hiker decreased from 2.8 per year to 1.2 in the year of the fire.
  • Benefits for mountain bikers decreased from $151 in an average year to $10 per year the year of the fire. These values remained below pre-fire levels even 40 years after the fire.
  • Benefits for hikers decreased from $130 in an average year to $90 per year in the year of the fire. These values remained below pre-fire levels even 40 years after the fire.

Prescribed burns would make trails more attractive for mountain bikers in the short-term, but would decrease the appeal for hikers in the short- and long-terms.

  • Annual trips per mountain biker would increase from 6.2 to 6.9 trips per year in the year of the fire, but drop to less than 1 trip per year in conditions 40 years after the fire.
  • Annual trips per hiker would decrease from 2.8 to 1.9 in the year of the fire, and continue to decline to less than 1 trip per year 40 years later.
  • Benefits for bikers decreased from $151 per trip to $26 per trip 40 years after the fire.

Benefits for hikers decreased from $130 per trip to $52 per trip 40 years after the fire.

Methods

Respondents were surveyed at trailheads and asked questions about their trip such as distance traveled, expenses incurred, duration, and primary activity. They were then presented with a survey asking them to describe how their frequency of visit would change if the forest had different fire conditions. They were shown photos to convey the fire scenarios. From these responses, the authors used statistical models to estimate the tradeoffs hikers and bikers make between the expense of traveling to a site and the fire-related conditions of the trail. This allowed the authors to calculate consumer surplus, a measure of the trail users’ benefit from a day on the trail.

Citation

Hesseln, H., J. Loomis, A. Gonzalez-Caban, and S. Alexander. 2003. “Wildfire effects on hiking and biking demand in New Mexico: a travel cost study.” Journal of Environmental Management 69(4): 359-368.