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UM Study: ‘Identity’ key to turning outdoor recreationalists into landscape stewards 

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Posted at 11:40 AM, Mar 09, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-11 10:21:05-04

Outdoor recreation is the lifeblood of culture here in Missoula, and a recent study by a University of Montana graduate student shows that identifying with the great outdoors leads recreationalists to take part in their preservation.

Elena Thomas is a recent graduate of the Parks, Tourism and Recreation Management master’s program in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry & Conservation. Although Thomas has always loved the outdoors, a genuine passion for working in and supporting wildlands first kindled when she moved to Montana.

Following her undergraduate studies, Thomas moved to the Treasure State to work for the Montana Conservation Corps and became hooked on Western landscapes ever since. Following that position, Thomas worked seasonally for the U.S. Forest Service and as a wilderness ranger in Colorado Rocky Mountain National Park for two summers before she returned to Montana to earn her master’s.

“I fell in love with conservation work, having jobs that allowed me to be in nature all the time, and well, the great outdoors,” Thomas said. “The seasonal experience of working for these agencies showed me just how much I loved it, and I knew I wanted to make a permanent career out of it.”

For her master’s thesis, Thomas spearheaded a study recently published in Leisure Sciences titled “The Effect of Place Attachment and Leisure Identity on Wildland Stewardship.” In her research, Thomas discovered that when a person identifies with an outdoor place, they are more compelled to protect it.

By conducting a survey at three trailheads for the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area near Missoula, Thomas looked at different types of behaviors to understand a person’s willingness to steward a landscape where they recreate.

The survey included a scale system where people gave a percentage of how strongly they felt toward a certain behavior while they recreated in the Rattlesnake. Some of the factors measured were how strongly a person felt attached to the place, how often they deployed efforts to “leave no trace” like picking up trash, pro-environmental actions such as staying in the middle of the trail, and a newer and less publicized concept known as “leisure identity.”

Leisure identity is a way to measure how people identify with the activities they do in their off time. According to PTRM Assistant Professor Will Rice, this concept was introduced in the ’80s and provides an interesting premise to link recreational activities to a person’s personality. He also said it is something that has been under-studied in outdoor recreation.

As the study proves, people who strongly associate with an activity that they do in “leisure” tend to have a greater concern for the environmental setting and an increased likelihood of stewarding that area.

Thomas collaborated closely with Rice and fellow master’s student Peter Whitney to produce her research. The study plugged into a larger study that looked at visitor flow through the Rattlesnake. This broader survey revealed where people came from, how they used the area, the different activity types and different use levels across time.

Thomas refined this further by seeking to understand why people go to the next level for an outdoor space. She wanted to know what prompted individuals to not just use an area, but also preserve it, signing up for things like trail maintenance, clean-up workdays or letter-writing campaigns to protect it.

“That is the really cool thing about thesis projects or grad student research. The goal is to create knowledge,” said Rice about Thomas’ project. “Looking at how each identity impacts the direction of an individual’s journey with a place was unexplored and unknown, now we know something about it that we didn't know before.”

Rice said this type of behavioral data is a huge boon to the entities that maintain these areas and whose mission is to ensure that wildlands exist for generations to come. Agencies like the Forest Service, City of Missoula or even the parks have a limited budget when it comes to preserving the landscapes under their guardianship, and when recreationalists pitch in it can really help with cost savings.

“One of the levers management agencies around the world can use are the people who are visiting the place,” Rice said. “If we can get people coming to a place to join the team of stewards, it helps to manage these places more effectively.”

Jeff Gicklhorn, program manager of conservation lands for Missoula, mirrored this sentiment.

“The advantage of a study like this is that it reinforces the thought that consistent and user-specific messaging could be used for improving user behaviors across properties and ownerships, including throughout the entire Missoula Valley,” Gicklhorn said. “Additionally, local users’ leisure identity can inform what stewardship-focused messages they will be receptive to.

Both Thomas and her peer Whitney were among three finalists in the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration Best Thesis Award national competition. Rice said this is the highest graduate award in this field of study. Their nominations marked the first time that UM graduates were among the finalists, only further accrediting the importance of this type of research.

Thomas is living proof of how identifying with wildland landscapes can shape one’s direction. After breaking new trails with her study, she was hired as the wilderness and recreation data management specialist for the Forest Service in Missoula – a new position form-fitted to both her master’s work and her passions.

Thomas hopes to continue exploring how behavioral data can inform conservation work, helping agencies to create an inclusive community and culture of stewardship throughout Montana.