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New research examines drought effects on state recreation areas

May 9, 2019

Researchers interviewed Nebraska state recreation area managers at eight sites, including Calamus State Recreation Area, to learn how drought affects outdoor recreation. NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Interviews with Nebraska state recreation area managers show how drought affects outdoor recreation and how resources like the U.S. Drought Monitor could be incorporated into a park management plan, according to recently published research.

The paper, “Drought impacts and management in prairie and sandhills state parks,” will appear in the June edition of the Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism and is available online now. The lead author of the paper is Theresa Jedd, environmental policy specialist with the National Drought Mitigation Center. Co-authors include Devarati Bhattacharya, K-16 STEM Education Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources; Cara Pesek, Nebraska Game and Parks public relations manager and Michael Hayes, applied climatologist and professor in the School of Natural Resources.

Jedd stated that even though Nebraska, overall, tends to have plentiful water resources, park managers are concerned with the possibility of experiencing dry years.

“Just like agricultural producers adjust their operations during droughts, managers mobilize park resources,” Jedd said. “A lot of this is behind the scenes, but data from our sample shows that the top management at state parks worry about drought for many reasons, from making sure that campers in tents have shade structures to prevent heat injuries to preventing long-term ecological damage. They’re also concerned with how flooding fluxes with drought and what the net effects are on the park wildlife and ecology.”

The research includes findings from interviews with eight Nebraska park superintendents. Jedd and her co-authors sought to learn how drought has affected outdoor recreation opportunities, and how parks are managed during drought. The superintendents, who voluntarily participated in the interviews, had recent drought experience from which to draw. The state has experienced two extended periods of “exceptional drought” in the past 18 years.

Park managers said that hot weather often led park users to take part in more water sports like boating or swimming, referring generally to times that may have qualified as periods of drought. While previous research has shown that weather events can blur together in memories, “nearly all of the managers immediately recalled the major drought event of 2012.”

The 2012 drought affected parks across the state. In Chadron, a September wildfire burned 256,000 acres and resulted in the temporary closure of Chadron State Park. At Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area, only 8 inches of precipitation was measured at the Kingsley Dam weather station in 2012, the driest year on record. Cottonwood trees that are 60-70 years old continue to crack and fall along the banks of the popular reservoir due to the stress they experienced in 2012, the park superintendent told researchers.

The researchers cataloged an array of drought impacts upon ecoregions in areas of the state where superintendents were surveyed, as well as how drought can cause different impacts in each of the areas during the four seasons of a year. They found that, in times of drought, superintendents’ three primary management tactics were facilities maintenance (implementing watering plans, moving boat docks when water levels declined), ecological maintenance (cutting down or digging up dying trees, grazing wild meadows) and fire prevention (added signage, campfire bans).

Drought is considered a creeping phenomenon by those who study it, meaning that it does not announce its presence like other extreme weather events such as floods or tornadoes. While the superintendents who experienced the 2012 drought had clear memories after the event, and took steps during the drought, interview participants gave a wide array of answers as to how they determined that drought was happening. Not all managers reported using drought monitoring information, and had differing perceptions of when a dry spell becomes a drought. One said two to three weeks without much rain typically meant a drought was occurring, while another said that two months of abnormal dryness indicated drought. Several said that slowed water flow was a significant indicator. Another noted that hot, sunny conditions could coincide with a drought. However, large reservoir levels are not straightforward drought indicators, because lakes can be drawn down throughout the summer for irrigation needs.

“Several opportunities exist to advance park management toward drought resilience,” the paper states. “Currently, managers tend not to formally monitor drought and instead focus on short-term weather conditions, rather than longer climate trends. Given the magnitude of potential losses for the outdoor recreation sector, it would be advantageous for park managers to have a readily accessible system with a set of indicators to assess the occurrence of drought and the necessary series of actions that follow. Connecting a spatial product such as the U.S. Drought Monitor with park communications may provide an early warning when droughts set in. Connecting this with a management plan or task force would prepare parks for droughts before they occur. Many of the appropriate actions are already underway, and future preparation could be as simple as documenting current adaptation strategies.”

This research was supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under a Climate Program Office/Sectoral Applications Research Program (SARP) competitive grant that funded the Decision and Risk Management Research Center (DRMRC) at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska School of Natural Resources.

By Cory Matteson, NDMC Communications Specialist