Clemson doctoral student receives prestigious national fellowship to explore in-state coastal challenges
Some of South Carolina’s most visited places are its beaches. The coast has also become an increasingly popular place to live, with Census data from 2017 showing about 29% of the total American population choosing to call a coastal community home.
This also rings true in South Carolina’s coastal Colleton County, which has seen a population increase of about 38% over the past 30 years. Tyler Cribbs, a doctoral student in the Clemson University Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, said the increasing popularity of coastal communities can be both a blessing and a challenge.
“Population and visitor growth demonstrate the value we place in our coastal communities as well as public support,” Cribbs said, “but they also increase the likelihood of environmental impacts to some of the most unique and diverse ecological habitats in our country.”
Cribbs is among the first graduate student researchers from across the country to receive a new national fellowship to conduct research that can help scientists and communities understand coastal challenges. The Margaret A. Davidson Fellowship Program from the National Estuarine Research Reserve System places a graduate student at every one of the country’s 29 national estuarine reserves. Cribbs will be conducting his research at South Carolina’s ACE Basin National Estuarian Research Reserve (ACE Basin), a 99,308 acre estuary that spans the Beaufort, Colleton and Charleston counties.
Estuaries are usually found where rivers meet the sea. The Environmental Protection Agency calls them places of transition, where the river’s freshwater mixes with the ocean’s salt water. As a result, these areas are some of the most ecologically diverse in the world, which, like other coastal communities, also makes them enticing places to visit and live.
Dr. Jeff Hallo, interim chair for the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, also serves as Cribbs’ dissertation committee chair. He said that the fellowship program provides an opportunity to apply a different type of lens to potential ecological issues at the ACE Basin.
“Tyler’s research project is unique in that we’re applying a social sciences lens to help answer questions about how to regulate visitor use impacts on one of South Carolina’s largest and most diverse protected areas,” Hallo said. “Tyler is primarily studying the visitation patterns and behaviors of people, instead of the animals and habitat.”
Cribbs will be conducting research that will help the ACE Basin both plan for and manage visitor recreational activity. He says that understanding how visitors are using the basin can help its staff manage its ongoing use, while also proactively protecting both the area’s key habitats and quality of visitor experiences, through a recreation ecology approach.
“Different forms of recreation have different levels and types of impacts, for example, a boater’s impact will be different than a horseback rider, hiker or biker,” Cribbs said. “Recreation ecology looks at how these different uses could be affecting the environment.”
Cribbs’ study will adopt a two-phased approach. The first phase will focus on measuring visitor perceptions and behavior through stakeholder interviews, visitor surveys, field cameras and GPS tracking. The second phase will look at the impact of human activity by surveying between five and 10 sites where recreation-related impacts are of most concern based on reserve staff input. This part of the study will look at locations for wildlife breeding or nesting and include measurements of trampling and related loss of vegetation or soil degradation, litter, unauthorized trails and other observable signs of resource damage such as fire rings, campsites, human waste or vandalism. Cellphone data will also be used to estimate visitation numbers and trends.
“In a nutshell, I want to find out where people are going and what they’re doing while they’re there,” Cribbs said. “Answering those two questions boils it right down to where you can make the most difference in recreation ecology; when you manage the people, you can better manage the land.”
The fellowship provides Cribbs with an annual stipend and support for travel costs. The reserve also receives a grant to help them cover equipment and supplies related to the fellow’s research.
ACE Basin Reserve Manager Blaik Keppler says that she and her staff are excited to work with Cribbs, who can help them better understand the connection between people and natural resources within the ACE Basin.
“The ACE is special for its wilderness-like quality, offers many different recreational opportunities, and is a safe haven for many different types of wildlife,” Keppler said. “Our goal is to maintain and enhance recreational opportunities over time while also protecting the natural resources and wildlife that this part of the coast is known for. Tyler’s work will ultimately help us strike that balance to benefit both human and wildlife users of the ACE.”
Cribbs started work on the project this month. He’s eager to be out on the South Carolina coast, collecting data that provides a clearer picture of how visitation and critical habitats can overlap.
“The ACE Basin is one of the last pristine estuary environments on the east coast and operates as an open reserve system with limitless access points, which presents an interesting challenge,” Cribbs said. “Combining GIS with other data sets already available, such as turtle nesting and short bird nesting habitats, will help us develop maps and other resources that show how visitation can overlap with some of those key ecological processes. I can’t wait to get out in the field to get started.”
The Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management is part of the University’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences (CBSHS). Established in July 2016, CBSHS is a 21st-century, land-grant college that combines work in seven disciplines – communication; nursing; parks, recreation and tourism management; political science; psychology; public health sciences; sociology, anthropology and criminal justice – to further its mission of “building people and communities” in South Carolina and beyond.