Outdoor Recreation Is Feeling the Heat from Wildfire Smoke in the American West

A new working paper finds that campers on public lands experience at least 400,000 days of wildfire smoke each year—but while smoke may cause negative health impacts, relatively few people cancel their trips as a result of poor air quality.


Aug. 2, 2021

News Type

Press Release

A new paper coauthored by scholars at Resources for the Future (RFF) finds that fire and smoke, respectively, affect 120,000 and 383,000 camper-days per year on public lands in the western United States. While some visitors cancel their trips as a result of proximity to fire or smoky conditions, many do not, which could lead to negative health outcomes for those that choose to visit.

The paper is the first to share causal estimates of the impacts of wildfire smoke on recreational behavior. Using data from 2008 to 2017, the authors focus on public lands in 11 western continental states. Using reservation records from over a thousand campgrounds, ground-level air quality data, and NASA satellites to analyze wildfire locations and smoke plumes, they put together a comprehensive record of the interaction between wildfires and campground use. A camper that visits a park for one day is tallied as a single camper-day.

“While there have been studies about the effects of wildfire on outdoor recreation, the issue of smoke is understudied—but very important,” paper coauthor and RFF Fellow Matthew Wibbenmeyer said. “Smoke can have serious impacts on people’s health and their ability to enjoy the beautiful places they come to visit. The health risks are especially serious for people at outdoor recreation sites because many of them are engaging in aerobic activities outdoors.”

The paper provides quantitative insights into several relationships between fire, smoke, and visitation, including:

  • Fire has a statistically significant impact on campground occupancy and cancellation rates. When a fire is within 12 miles of a campground, the occupancy rate declines roughly 25 percent on average and the prearrival cancellation rate more than doubles.
  • However, on days with adverse smoke conditions, the average occupancy rate drops by 4 percent. The average prearrival cancellation rate rises by 32 percent.
  • On average, 4 percent of open days in sampled campgrounds were affected by smoke. In the Northern Rockies, that rose to 7 percent of camper-days.

Extrapolating the data on campers to all visitors of 27 parks in the western United States, the number of affected visitors and campers balloon—roughly 392,000 visitor-days are affected by fire while approximately 1 million visitor days are affected by smoke. Notably, statistical analysis showed that the occupancy rate was less responsive to smoky conditions at the most popular campgrounds in places like Yosemite and Glacier, perhaps because reservations at these sites are harder to come by.

“Our western national parks are well-loved, and people are visiting these places more than ever,” said coauthor and RFF Senior Fellow Margaret Walls. “But because there are so many people, and campgrounds are in such high demand, people would rather brave the conditions than cancel what may be a long-awaited trip. It’s likely that policy will be needed to ensure that people will continue to safely visit these landscapes in the years to come.”

To read about the findings in depth, read “Wildfire, Smoke, and Outdoor Recreation in the Western United States” by Jacob Gellman, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara; Margaret Walls, a senior fellow at RFF; and Matthew Wibbenmeyer, a fellow at RFF.

Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.

Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.

For more information, please refer to our media resources page or contact Media Relations Associate Anne McDarris.

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