The use of parks and protected areas by visitors creates concern about appropriate levels of use because there are limits that define how much pressure from outside forces an ecosystem can endure before it experiences degradation, and there are thresholds that define visitor experiences. When researchers, park authorities, and policy makers are trying to determine appropriate usage levels of specific areas, they frequently rely on the rationale of carrying capacity, including social carrying capacity, which “focuses on the relationships among users of a park or protected area” (Dearden & Rollins).
Prior to determining the carrying capacity of a specific area, it is important to define carrying capacity. Prior to its use in the study of parks and protected areas, carrying capacity was commonly used in a variety of natural resource disciplines. The term has received broad use in wildlife and range management, where it was generally characterized as the number of animals of a given species that can be sustained in a known habitat (Dasmann 1964). Based on that characterization, carrying capacity has apparent equivalence in the study of parks and protected areas. One of the first uses of the term carry capacity, in relation to parks and protected areas, occurred in a 1935 report that asked, “How large a crowd can be turned loose in a wilderness without destroying its essential qualities?” (Sumner 1935). The answer in that report was that recreational use of wilderness should be kept “within the carrying capacity.” However, the first detailed use of carrying capacity in the management of parks and protected areas did not occur until the 1960s.
At first, the focus was placed on the relationship between visitor use and environmental conditions. The hypothesis was that increased visitor use causes greater environmental impact, as measured by an array of variables, including destruction of vegetation and soil compaction. One of the first significant reports on the application of carrying capacity to parks and protected areas “… was initiated with the view that the carrying capacity of recreation lands could be determined primarily in terms of ecology and the deterioration of areas. However, it soon became obvious that the resource-oriented point of view must be augmented by consideration of human values” (Wager, 1964), as there was another dimension of carrying capacity that was receiving minimal consideration; dealing with social aspects of the visitor experience.
The point was that as more people visit an area, not only can the environmental resources of the area be affected, but so can the quality of the experience of the people visiting the area. The hypothesis was that increased visitor use triggers greater social impacts, as measured by crowding and related variables; therefore, carrying capacity, in relation to parks and protected areas has two key components: ecological and social. That dual component recognition is encompassed in a US National Park Service report (1997), which defines carrying capacity as “…the type and level of visitor use that can be accommodated while sustaining the desired resource and social conditions that complement the purpose of a park unit and its management objectives.” There are no social components in Parks Canada’s definition of carrying capacity: “Carrying capacity is the equilibrium established between any life form and it’s environment. It is frequently expressed as a number indicating the population of any given animal a given area can support.” (Parks Canada and Ecological Integrity) However, attempts to establish and apply social carrying capacity can be challenging because how would someone determine how much social impact, such as crowding, is too much? Additionally, in areas that experience increased visitor usage levels, it is unavoidable that there will be deterioration or alteration in the quality of the experience by the people using...