The Effects of Drought on Recreation and Wilderness

Wooden sign in front of Maroon Bells mountains

Drought, Ecosystem Functions, and Recreation

Drought conditions present challenges for managing recreation opportunities on national forests and grasslands by affecting ecosystem functions that drive demand for recreation. For recreationalists, direct effects of drought are expressed in the reduction of snowpack and runoff, or lower stream flow and water levels in reservoirs and lakes.

The indirect effects include changes in site characteristics and quality, such as changes in vegetation, wildlife habitats, disturbances (e.g., fire or insect outbreak), and unique features (e.g., glaciers). These direct and indirect effects will likely change demand for drought-sensitive recreation.

However, drought also provides opportunities for the evolving and adaptable recreationalist and outdoor recreation industry. For example, ski areas in Colorado have shifted from providing only winter skiing and snowboarding opportunities to becoming all-season resorts that offer a suite of year-round activities.


The following content is from a publication from the Forest Service Office of Sustainability and Climate, the full content can be viewed/downloaded in PDF


Warm Weather Recreation

Warm weather recreation includes activities such as hiking, camping, biking, backpacking, viewing natural features, fishing, and visiting Wilderness areas.

In the Rocky Mountains, snowmelt and spring runoff have been occurring earlier in the spring due to lower snow-water equivalent, warmer spring temperatures, and greater solar absorption from dust on snow (Lukas et al.,, 2014). These conditions create more days without snow and ice, with more suitable temperatures for warm weather recreation.

This shifting shoulder season for warm weather activities may change visitors’ site preferences. As conditions change, people shift where they are recreating based on trail conditions, the presence of unique features (e.g., wildflowers) or smoke from wildfire, and vegetation cover.

Expected Effects on Warm Weather Recreation Adaptation Strategies
  • Overall increase in demand for warm weather activities as shoulder seasons shift and site characteristics change.
  • Warmer and drier weather patterns at lower elevations can lead to increased visitation at higher elevations.
  • Use restrictions based on road and trail conditions may no longer be applicable in drier and warmer spring and fall seasons.
  • Use predictive modeling that incorporates changing climate conditions when developing recreation plans.
  • Track trends through surveys such as the National Visitor Use Monitoring program (NVUM) to determine how drought is affecting use patterns.
  • Inform the public about changing recreation opportunities and the impacts from climate change.
  • Consider if flexibility, based on dry conditions, can be incorporated into travel management decisions.
  • Explore creative staffing and partnerships to accommodate changes in use due to drought. For example, develop partnerships with local governments, other agencies, tribes, or volunteer groups to help manage sites in shoulder seasons.

Snow-based Winter Recreation

Snow based winter recreation includes activities such as downhill and cross country skiing, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing. Climate projections predict a decrease in snowpack and viable snow sports seasons, especially at lower and mid elevations (Wobus et al., 2017).

Snow drought will have negative impacts on skiing and snowmobiling. These impacts may include shorter recreation seasons; shifts in activities to higher elevations; decreased recreation use in snow-dominated areas in early and late winter; and new management challenges for ski resorts.

Ski Areas

Expected Effects on Ski Areas Adaptation Strategies
  • Ski seasons will be more variable; there may be years when resorts have less terrain available.
  • Greater temperature variability will increase avalanche danger and rain-on-snow events.
  • Small business resorts that have fewer resources to utilize improved snowmaking technologies and four season opportunities may experience the greatest impact.
  • Recognize the need for four season opportunities in planning documents.
  • Partner with ski areas to integrate their opportunities into forest recreation master plans.
  • When evaluating water resources, consider the needs and impacts from snowmaking.

Trail-based Activities (Cross country skiing, snowmobiling)

Expected Effects on Trail-based Activities Adaptation Strategies
  • The snow base appropriate to the various activities may have a shorter season or occur at higher elevations. When this happens, developed trailheads and staging areas may be stranded at lower elevations with no access to snow.
  • Damage to trails and vehicles can occur without sufficient snow depth.
  • Snowplowing contracts and agreements may not be sufficient to reach higher elevations.
  • Analyze location of trailheads and staging areas and locate alternative temporary or permanent parking areas at higher elevations as needed.
  • Identify potential partnerships and grant opportunities to develop multiple use trailheads at higher elevations that can serve needs for both winter and summer use.
  • Work with partners and volunteers to monitor snow conditions, and widely share information about suitable locations for snowmobiling and other snow-based activities.
  • Identify funding opportunities or partnerships for potentially increased costs of snow plowing.

Wildlife Related Recreation

Wildlife related recreation includes activities such as hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing. As drought increases, hunting and fishing patterns may change in response to decreases and increases of wildlife and fish populations.

A reduction of cold water fish species (e.g., bull and cutthroat trout) is projected due to warmer stream temperatures, decline in summer flow, and retreat of suitable habitat. Fishing for warm water fish might experience the opposite effect with greater recreational opportunities for brook and rainbow trout, and smallmouth bass fishing.

Drought effects on hunting terrestrial game (e.g., elk, whitetail and mule deer) are uncertain given the pattern of abundance, distribution, and available forage. For mule deer, poor nutrition associated with drought-affected vegetation makes fawns more susceptible to parasites, diseases, and predation (Friggens et al., 2013).

Expected Effects on Wildlife Related Recreation Adaptation Strategies
  • River closures for recreation users may increase due to high temperatures and/or low stream flows.
  • Decreased diversity and abundance of fish will impact anglers’ recreation opportunities.
  • There will be decreased opportunities for cold water angling. » Hunting seasons may become less desirable because of less or no snow.
  • Coordinate closely with state agencies that manage hunting and fishing licenses.
  • Provide up-to-date information on the impacts of drought and extreme weather to recreation sites (e.g., flash floods in popular fishing areas).
  • Be flexible in moving recreation patrols.
  • Work with partners to share information about changes to fishing and hunting season.

This is an excerpt taken from a synopsis of presentations given in a webinar by the Forest Service, with support from the USDA climate hubs, in March 2017. Presentations highlighted the direct and indirect effects of drought and how they affect the demand for recreation activities. The full synopsis is available as a PDF

References made on this page can be found in full text pdf.