‘Strongly attached’ hikers love nature; want a challenge, UF/IFAS study finds
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As U.S. Forest Service officials consider how best to improve — and someday, complete — the Florida National Scenic Trail, a University of Florida professor has been gauging trail hikers’ emotional attachments to the places they traverse.
The trail, one of only 11 National Scenic Trails in the U.S., stretches for 1,400 miles throughout Florida, from Pensacola to the Big Cypress National Preserve. The trail is not complete, though officials hope to obtain lands to finish it, said UF’s Taylor Stein, a professor who specializes in ecotourism.
Stein, a faculty member with the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, led the nearly two-year study. Between May 2008 and April 2010, researchers visited seven “wildland-urban interface” areas along the trail to survey hikers as they exited. Their results are featured in the current issue of the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.
Of the nearly 250 hikers they surveyed, 37 percent were found to be highly attached to the area; 44 percent had a medium-level attachment and about 19 percent were deemed to have low attachment.
“We found that people who are strongly attached to a wildland-urban interface do think differently about it than others,” Stein said. “But oddly, we found no differences between groups such as old and young, or gender or different income levels.”
Stein said the researchers focused tightly on the “strongly attached” hikers because they are often the most engaged group and are typically those most likely to offer the best support to land managers in their attempts to manage and complete the trail.
Wanting an escape from normal life was important for the strongly attached group, he said. The group also was most interested in learning opportunities connected to the hiking experience and most invested in having the hiking experience provide a physical challenge.
Land managers need that information, he said, because it helps guide decisions such as how much emphasis to place on maintaining privacy barriers between neighborhoods and trails, ensuring that the topography is challenging or adding educational elements along a trail.
Joining Stein on the study team were former UF doctoral student Namyun Kil, UF’s Stephen M. Holland, an associate professor in the tourism, recreation and sport management department, and Dorothy H. Anderson, a professor with North Carolina State University’s parks, recreation and tourism management department.
The recent work is part of a long-term study Stein has made of Florida National Scenic Trail visitors. Not many people hike the trail in its entirety each year, he said, due to its length and unforgiving conditions. Undesignated segments of the trail follow busy highways and roads through developed lands. The U.S. Forest Service is looking to find alternative, more natural areas the trail could move through. However, completing the trail would likely require land purchases or negotiations with property owners.