Moab is one of the main centers of the southwest’s growing outdoor recreation tourism economy, with thousands coming to hike, climb and ride mountain bikes through the red rock scenery. While tourists hike down a trail on public land, the complicated work of managing such areas might not be apparent.

“One thing that’s neat about Moab is that it’s really a recreation-oriented community,” Dr. Wayne Freimund said. “Not only for the tourists, but also for the people living there. It's one of the reasons a lot of people are in Moab.”

Freimund is joining Utah State University’s Moab Extension as a Professor of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at USU’s Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, which offers undergraduate and master’s degrees in Recreation Resource Management.

Founded in 1998, the Institute conducts research, outreach and teaching centered on outdoor recreation and tourism management and focuses on the complicated intersection of social and economic trade-offs that are often related to recreational opportunities on public lands.

Students in Moab have the opportunity to engage with both nonprofits and a variety of land management agencies and organizations. USU partners with local offices of agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey to offer internships to students. This gives students an in-depth look at an agency, Freimund said, and also, in a place like Moab where public land abounds, experience in cross-boundary management and cooperation.

sub: A return to familiar ground

Freimund has long been familiar with Moab.

“Arches was one of the first national park studies that I did,” he recalled.

Observing the park over the years, he said, he’s seen infrastructure built up and busier trailheads and parking lots, but he said that intentional management practices have been effective in protecting the natural resources.

Freimund said that recreation resource management overlaps with other natural resource management degrees. Students spend time working in the natural environment and learn about biology, chemistry, ecosystems, plants and animals.

The recreational aspects, he explained, delve more into studying the human experience.

“We probably spend a little more time understanding human behavior, economics, types of experiences people are seeking and what they’re receiving and how they respond to different kinds of management innovations.”

Recreational management opportunities

The growth of outdoor recreation over the last several decades demonstrates the need for management experts to protect the experiences Americans seek.

“Certainly in American society, people really do love the outdoors,” Freimund said. “Our national parks get well over 300 million visitors in a year. Our state park systems, if you add them up across the country, get about 800 million visitors a year.”

Freidmund said that for a long time, resource management programs primarily prepared students for careers in federal and state government agencies like the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, or state Wildlife Resource Departments.

Recently, however, he noted that funding for those government agencies has not kept up with the increase in costs of operation. More resource management graduates are pursuing careers with nonprofits like The Nature Conservancy.

“Budgets for land management are going up, but not enough to compensate for increased costs,” Freimund said. “The Park Service is famous for its infrastructure and capital-improvement backlog of billions of dollars that it needs.”

Moab as a study subject

In addition to teaching, Freimund is interested in researching visitation in the Moab area. He’d like to build a “big picture” understanding of visitation and outdoor tourism in Moab by compiling data from different land management agencies like the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

“I think the respective groups have some good understanding of what’s going on within their individual units,” he said, but a more comprehensive look at visitation could shed light on how many people are coming to Moab overall, where they’re going, how long they’re staying, what areas and activities they’re engaging with during their stays, and how those trends are changing over time.

That data will help with management decisions across agencies.

Educating the next generation of managers

Freimund will be teaching a Recreation Policy and Planning class in the fall, and is designing a field-based course on measuring and problem-solving issues in the recreation management field. Classes will be a little different than normal, with online platforms playing a bigger role, and fieldwork potentially being assigned as self-directed individual projects rather than group trips.

“I’ve been hamstrung a little bit by the coronavirus, but one of my goals is to really get to know the management community in the Moab region and try to find places we can plug our students in to meet their needs,” he said, envisioning a mix of pre-determined internship positions and opportunities born out of spontaneous connections of skills, interests, and needs.

“It’s something I believe strongly in,” he said, “and I think it’s great for the students—they get exposed to the realities of working in that environment—but it’s also great for the agencies.”

“They get some help, some new ideas, and they get affirmation from the next generation, that someone’s going to pick up the baton and keep going,” Freimund said.