Bill Summers, Jeff Hallo, Damon Graham, Katie Dudley and Brock Hill discuss plans for the Tennessee State Parks carrying capacity study. Summers and Graham are park managers at Burgess Falls and Rock Island State Parks, respectively.
Image Credit: Jeff Hallo

CLEMSON, South Carolina — A Clemson University associate professor and two graduate students are working with Tennessee State Parks to determine if there is such a thing as too many visitors in state parks. Their research aims to determine how an adjustment to management practices can keep three Tennessee state parks enjoyable while also allowing access to a growing number of park visitors each year.

Jeffrey Hallo, associate professor in the Clemson parks, recreation and tourism management department, has teamed with Katie Dudley and Maggie McGuinness, doctoral and master’s students, respectively, on the project. They are working with representatives from Tennessee State Parks to conduct research that will help guide visitor management and decisions related to carrying capacity. In the case of parks, carrying capacity is the appropriate number of people that a park can hold at a given time without destroying its essential qualities, such as the ability to find solitude or enjoy scenic views.

“There is currently no limit on the number of visitors that come to these parks, which translates to a high density of people swimming and picnicking at park waterfalls,” Hallo said. “We seek to gather accurate and defensible information regarding how many visitors can ultimately be accommodated without degrading the visitors’ experiences.”

Brock Hill, Tennessee’s deputy commissioner for parks and conservation, and Mike Robertson, the director of state park operations, approached Hallo about the project after they met at the National Association of State Park Directors meeting in September 2015. The research team will study waterfall-based Tennessee parks, including Cummins Falls, Burgess Falls and Rock Island State Parks. Hallo said the team will take a broad view of these parks, but a great deal of the research focus will naturally shift to the waterfalls and surrounding areas.

According to Hill, the issue not only concerns resource preservation and a quality experience, but also safety for park visitors. He said unsupervised visitors have been injured and there have been a record number of carry-outs in the last year. Hill said there might be too many people visiting at once, but the last thing he wants to do is pursue a solution that alienates those patronizing the parks.

“We’ve been really impressed with the work Clemson has done in these areas in the past,” Hill said. “It’s great to have people well-acquainted with the process to get us where we need to be so that we can implement a solution.”


The Clemson research team is using these images of Cummins Falls in visitor surveys to gauge response regarding acceptable levels of crowding.
Image Credit: Jeff Hallo

Hallo and the research team are using the Visitor Experience and Resource Protection framework to study visitor use, attitudes and perceptions of impacts; identify indicators and standards; and assess how acceptable management alternatives are to visitors. The U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service developed the framework to address the need of national parks related to carrying capacity.

In an unprecedented move, the research team is applying the framework to state parks. Hallo said the framework’s approach and benefits are just as applicable to state parks, as it aims to balance the visitor experience with the best interests of the park’s natural and cultural resources in the face of increased visitor use.

He said the research team began gathering baseline data for the project in mid-June. This data cover visitor use, visitor attitudes and associated resource and social impacts. The team will also collect data to identify indicators and standards for the visitors’ experiences, which serve as the basis for carrying capacity decisions. Hallo said the task at hand will be a challenging balancing act for Tennessee State Parks, but he hopes the research will supply the park system with the necessary information and recommendations to move forward so it can continue providing high-quality, safe experiences for visitors.

“It’s a hard thing, to be able to provide access, protect the land to which you’re providing access and make sure the experience for visitors is still high quality,” Hallo said, “but an intervention might be needed because these parks are getting busier year after year.”