Wildfire, Smoke, and Outdoor Recreation in the Western United States

This 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.

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Date

Aug. 2, 2021

Authors

Jacob Gellman, Margaret A. Walls, and Matthew Wibbenmeyer

Publication

Working Paper

Reading time

1 minute

Abstract

Wildfire activity is increasing in the western United States at a time when outdoor recreation is growing in popularity. Because peak outdoor recreation and wildfire seasons overlap, fires can disrupt recreation and expose people to poor air quality. We link daily data on campground use at 1,069 public campgrounds across the western United States over a ten-year period to daily satellite data on wildfire and smoke. We use this data set to (1) tabulate the number of campers affected by wildfire and smoke at campgrounds across the western US, and (2) provide estimates of how campground use responds to wildfire and smoke impacts, including the first causal estimates of the impacts of wildfire smoke on recreation behavior. We find that, on average, more than 120,000 campground visitor-days per year are close to an actively burning fire and nearly 400,000 are impacted by adverse smoke conditions, defined as the presence of smoke combined with high ground-level air quality monitor readings. In some regions more than ten percent of camper-days occur when air quality is poor due to wildfire smoke. Combining the results with monthly national park visitation data at the 30 parks in our sample, we estimate that fire and smoke affect 400,000 and 1 million visitor-days per year, respectively. Using fixed effects panel regressions at the campground level, we estimate declines in campground use in response to fire and smoke. The magnitude of the smoke effect is small, however, suggesting that smoke fails to deter most visitors to public lands. Back-of-the envelope welfare calculations suggest that most of the smoke-related welfare losses that campers experience are due to health impacts from trips taken rather than lost utility from cancelled trips.

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