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Recreational management theory can help utilities protect reservoirs

By Karla Billingon, Catchment Management Consultant at Naturallogic Australia and co-chair of the Australian Water Association's Catchment Management Specialist Network.

Source water catchments are generally comprised of outer catchment areas, an inner catchment and a reservoir storage that is close to the water treatment plant. The inner catchment, that is proximate to or surrounds the reservoir (“reservoir reserve”) will generally have a strong emphasis on source water protection as pollution attenuation, a feature of the passage of water through the wider catchment, is not as distinct within the smaller inner catchment. These critical reservoir reserves are also often close to urban or metropolitan areas and are being seen as desirable outdoor recreation spaces due to their convenient location, environmental features and aesthetic qualities.

Once a reservoir reserve is open to recreation, the land (and potentially the water) takes on the role of a public open space, having multiple management outcomes, including: drinking water supply, environmental protection, and outdoor recreation. This means management must protect the reservoir reserve and its role in providing drinking water, while aiming to offer a visitor experience that meets the aspirations and expectations of the public.

It should be acknowledged from the outset that these multiple purposes can be in conflict, with tensions arising between stakeholders. It is also known that recreation will inevitably cause changes to the natural and built environment, but that limits of acceptable change must be established with actions taken to minimise impacts. With these drivers in mind, management approaches are required that balance stakeholder values and concerns within the bounds of acceptability.

While acknowledging that freedom of choice and subtle management is important to visitors, the requirement to use direct (regulatory) or indirect management strategies and actions should also be acknowledged. It is considered that direct and indirect strategies are complementary, rather than seperate managerial approaches, as different strategies and actions will resonate with different users and will be more or less suitable for a given scenario.

For example, instances of members of the public knowingly engaging in illegal actions generally require a law enforcement response, whereas careless, unskilled or uninformed actions are often most appropriately addressed through communication and educational responses. Hammitt and Cole (2015) suggest that managers evaluate strategies and actions in terms of their likely effectiveness and the burden upon the visitor, aiming at finding an optimum balance between these criteria.

In order for any management approach to be effective, there must be a clear line of sight between the reservoir reserve objectives, recreational activity impacts, the rationale of the management strategies and actions, and the recommended conditions and rules. To optimise the effectiveness this rationale needs to be explained to and accepted by visitors, and the conditions and rules need to be considered reasonable. The outcome should then maximise the likelihood of achieving target levels of conformance.

The complexities of this management challenge require a discerning management perspective that can be underpinned by decades of learning from applied recreational management and social psychologists. This discussion paper seeks to explore these management practices in the context of managing recreation in drinking water reservoir reserves.

Public open space

The requirement to provide and manage land to support growing recreational needs has to coincide with the conservation of the natural environment. In the case of reservoir reserves, which are particularly vulnerable to anthropogenic impacts, an emphasis on protecting environmental values that provide for potable water supplies and reducing pollutants associated with human activity is particularly important. Community open space planning identifies the main functional focuses and then seeks to apply planning policies and agency resources to balance these often conflicting functional requirements (Maruani, Amit-Cohen, 2007).

Recreation and management controls: a world apart

It should be acknowledged from the outset that the multiple outcomes of recreation, environmental management, and drinking water supply can be in conflict, with tensions arising between stakeholders.

Lucas (1983) defines recreation as:

“A particular type of human experience that results from self-rewarding physical or mental engagements, based on personal free choice”.

This definition stresses internal control and personal free choice, the basis of which will vary fundamentally between user groups and individuals.

In contrast, regulation, that can be applied to environmental management, is defined by the Macquarie Dictionary 7th edition as:

"Rule or order, as for conduct, prescribed by authority; a governing direction or law".

Instead of the self-direction, autonomy and diversity inherent in the recreational aspirations, regulation involves external direction and uniformity (Lucas 1983). Furthermore, many associate outdoor recreation with the "primitive and remote end" of the recreational opportunity spectrum, that is a "wilderness experience", where freedom of choice and unobtrusive management is of primary concern to visitors.

Lucas (1982) states:

“Recreation and regulations are inherently contradictory because freedom and spontaneity lie at the core of most outdoor recreational pursuits”.

However, when there is potential to cause impact that is of a serious nature, then recreational management controls, environmental or site modifications and behaviour management of visitors become necessary.

While acknowledging that freedom of choice is important to visitors and should be facilitated wherever possible, the requirement to use direct (regulatory) or indirect management strategies and actions should also be acknowledged.

Direct and indirect management strategies and action

Traditionally, management actions have been considered as being either direct or indirect in nature (Gilbert, Peterson, and Lime 1972). Direct management focuses on defining and controlling human behaviour directly, usually through regulation. Under a direct management approach, visitor behaviour is prescribed through the establishment of regulations, communicating consequences for nonconformance and enforcement of regulation provisions.

Indirect management seeks to affect decision-making factors to influence rather than force behaviour (Hammitt and Cole, 2015). In applying the indirect approach, visitors retain the freedom to choose their course of action. This is commonly accomplished through the provision of information, education, persuasion, or site manipulation to promote voluntary conformance to protective conditions or rules (Gramann, Christensen, and Vander Stoep, 1992), that can be powerful management tools (Lucas, 1987).

It is often assumed that:

  1. indirect management is preferable and should be tried first; or
  2. direct approaches are more effective but also carry more visitor and management cost.

A thorough consideration of recreational management experience is likely to conclude that both assumptions are oversimplified and can be misleading (Hammitt and Cole, 2015). A more effective management strategy that is contextual based on the type of users, environment, and strategies available for management  is likely to be more relevant and effective.

In fact, the notion that indirect techniques are preferable to direct techniques has in some cases paralysed many management efforts, because managers have been unwilling to implement direct management actions, even if they are the most appropriate and effective means of dealing with impacts (Cole 1995).

This is despite field research in outdoor recreation supporting the efficacy of direct management strategies and actions (Johnson and Swearingen, 1992; Martin, 1992; Samdahl and Christensen, 1985). Much of this research argues that managers should not hesitate to employ direct controls, even as initial actions, when long-term or irreversible resource degradation may occur (Dustin and McAvoy 1982), or where there is a risk to public health and safety.

While indirect management strategies may be seen on balance to be preferable, there are situations where regulation plays an important and legitimate role. Generally, a more regulated approach is often warranted where the impact could be of a "serious nature", where it is essential that the majority of visitors comply with a standard of behaviour, and where compliance and enforcement options are available.

In the case of recreation within reservoir reserves, impacts of a serious nature may include:

  • increase in water quality risks;
  • increase in fire risk (from recreation or illegal access);
  • injury or the risk of death to members of the public;
  • damage to built assets or tampering with operational equipment;
  • significant impacts to the environmental values of the reservoir reserve;
  • affecting other visitors’ reasonable enjoyment of the environment and facilities; or
  • disturbance to neighbouring properties.

Where regulations are instituted, Hammitt and Cole (2015) indicate that it is important to:

  • Regulate at the minimum level and target the specific problem as precisely as possible. It is preferential not to overprescribe the problem with restrictions that impose an unnecessary burden on visitors and have little effect on the target problem or management objective.
  • Explain the reasons for regulations. This should help to improve visitor conformance. Visitors are more inclined to respect conditions and find them to be less imposing if they recognise that they are necessary.
  • Be sure that visitors understand how they are expected to behave. In some cases, they may be unaware of regulations, or conditions may be ambiguous. This is likely to reduce conformance and increase confusion and frustration.
  • Enforce regulations. It is not fair to law-abiding visitors if regulations are not enforced once they have been established. If enforcement is impossible, it is probably better to take an indirect management approach, where the emphasis in on information, persuasion or site manipulation.
  • Have educational messages that are designed to deter particular behaviours by informing people of the personal harm or cost that engaging in such actions will produce (e.g. injury, fines) as compared with awareness-of-consequences messages, that focus on harm to others or to the environment arising from specific behaviours.

Where regulations are relatively narrow in focus (targeting specific problems) and are unlikely to impact many visitors (either due to the number of visitors or the inherent level of cooperation), the compliance and enforcement challenge should be neither difficult nor costly. The inverse is also true: where regulations are likely to impact many visitors, the cost associated with compliance and enforcement can be considerable and other non-regulatory approaches should be considered first that aim to achieve behavioural change with the majority of visitors.

Direct and indirect strategies should be viewed as complementary, rather than competing managerial approaches, as different approaches will resonate with different user groups. Depending on the situation, management could have one leading strategy and then several re-enforcing strategies to support the overall objective.

Management effectiveness and visitor burden

Instead of considering techniques as they are arrayed on a direct-indirect continuum, Hammitt and Cole (2015) suggest that managers evaluate management approaches in terms of their likely effectiveness and their visitor burden. This concept is discussed below, and the requirement to find an optimum balance between these criteria.


Effectiveness is usually the initial criterion used to identify potential management strategies and actions. It is pointless to consider techniques that are not likely to prevent or correct impacts. Hammitt and Cole further argue that it is not necessary to select the most effective technique if a slightly less effective technique carries significantly less visitor burden. In addition, outdoor recreation management strategies and actions should not be utilised simply because they are familiar or administratively expedient.

Visitor Burden. Cole, Petersen and Lucas (1987) identify six different dimensions that together determine how onerous management strategies and actions are on visitors (Table 1). Preference should generally be given to approaches that have a lower visitor burden, whilst also ensuring that the approach is effective.

Table 1. Factors that influence the visitor burden imposed by management actions. (Source: Cole, Petersen and Lucas 1987)

The capacity of management actions to be achieved in a subtle or unobtrusive manner is probably as important as the desire to maintain freedom of choice in an outdoor recreation context (Table 1). Education/information (without telling visitors what they should do) and physical manipulation of the environment are more subtle approaches to management.

For example, in trying to keep visitors to particular areas within a reservoir reserve, educating people on the vulnerability of the water source and the natural environment, or providing access tracks that minimise access to high value built and environmental assets may form a suitable approach. Hammitt and Cole (2015) conclude that it is subtlety, as much as lack of regulation, that is the preferred approach to management of recreation behaviour.

Where and when management occurs is also a critical element (Table 1). Particularly where outdoor recreation is the focus, it is preferable to regulate or influence behaviour outside rather than inside the recreation area. This allows the visitor to adjust to restrictions early and not be limited or encumbered greatly while engaging in the recreational activity (Hammitt and Cole, 2015). For example, if access is restricted at a reservoir reserve (i.e. no wheelchair access or limited access to low mobility visitors), this should be clearly communicated to potential visitors before they arrive. Similarly, if recreational activities are limited to several approved activities, this needs to be clearly communicated prior to visitors reaching the site.

Hammitt and Cole (2015) conclude that:

“the best time to communicate restrictions or attempt to influence behaviour is when visitors are in the planning phase of their trip. At this stage they can change their plans if the impact of management programs is unacceptable to them, and they have time to accept and adjust to restrictions”.

The number of visitors affected by an action and the importance of the freedoms they are asked or required to forgo is also important when considering visitor burden (Table 1). For the majority of visitors to reservoir reserves, a regulation limiting dog access is much less bothersome than being required to leave the reserve by 3pm. This follows from the fact that fewer parties are affected by such dog controls. Similarly, asking visitors to take their rubbish with them should be less costly than asking them to not walk beyond an initial lookout. Most visitors place more importance on being able access a greater proportion of the reserve than on being able to leave their rubbish, so denial of access is more burdensome.

In many cases, the same management outcomes could be achieved using either a direct or indirect management approaches (i.e. they are both effective), and in these cases the burden on visitors should be minimised.

The cumulative weight of a number of conditions or rules must also be considered. Many studies indicate that reducing use should be the last option a manager exercises. However, it may be much worse to keep visitors from doing many of the things they want to do than it would be to occasionally deny them access to recreation areas when risks are collectively considered to be unacceptable (Cole 1995).

Evaluating and balancing the visitor burdens from various factors is complex, and the perceived burden varies between different types of visitors. Hammitt and Cole (2015) considered that the preferred approaches are those that are non-regulatory and subtle, and that communicate with visitors outside the area during the planning phase of the trip. In practice, few approaches combine all of these desirable elements. Where other combinations are required, managers will need to balance the pros and cons with regard to the visitor experience and assess these against their effectiveness.

Management rationale, desirable activities and reasonable conditions

It is important that visitors perceive that the suggested behaviour is rational and reasonable. Under some conditions, or for some user groups, visitors may feel there is a compelling desire or reason to not comply with conditions or regulations, or that their individual action is unlikely to cause an impact (and hence behavioural conformity is not necessary).

For example, if a reservoir is open for certain activities but excludes others, prohibited users may enter the reservoir reserve on the basis that it is desirable and that there is no legitimate rationale for their exclusion,  hence the requested behavioural condition is unreasonable. Or users may believe that it is highly desirable to swim within a reservoir and may do so even though it is not permitted, on the basis that the behavioural condition is unreasonable as they don’t understand, or don’t accept, the rationale of water quality risk. Generally, the more desirable an activity is, and/or the less reasonable and transparent the associated rationale and behavioural conditions are, the higher the degree of non-conformance.

To change this situation, management should consider:

  • reviewing the management rationale and targeting the behavioural measures, ensuring a clear understanding of the causal processes that create the management impact (and that this impact is in fact important to the overall objective of the reservoir reserve);
  • influencing the drivers of visitors' aspirations and desires (and their expectations);
  • influencing visitors' appreciation of the behavioural conditions and the associated rationale;
  • influencing visitors' understandings of their contribution to cumulative impact; and
  • providing a direct regulatory response, communicating the consequences for non-conformance and achieving enforcement.

When considering visitors' aspirations, desires and expectations, it is important to understand the visitor typology, as different users and user groups will have different traits. For example, Gramann, Bonifeld and Kim (1995) consider that people who are more socially responsible will be more receptive to educational messages promoting their awareness of the negative environmental effects of violating rules or conditions in outdoor recreation areas. Several studies have demonstrated that socially responsible persons have an enhanced sense of commitment to the collective good, a strong tendency to delay personal gratification, and a proclivity to help others, even when there is nothing material to be gained by doing so (Batson, Bolen, Cross and Neuringer-Benefiel, 1986; Berkowitz and Lutterman, 1968; Willis and Goethals, 1973; Witt, 1990).

Furthermore, it is often not recreational visitors but rather those illegally accessing the reservoir reserve that cause negative impacts. As a result, recreational assessment needs to consider not only the intended visitors, but also other members of the public who may enter the site illegally.

Behavioural traits such as social responsibility can be actively influenced through designed management techniques. Schwartz (1977) hypothesised that helping behaviour (associated with voluntary conformance) is more likely to occur when potential users are made aware of the consequences of their helping (or not helping), and when they feel personally responsible to help in specific situations. On the other hand, persons who are less socially responsible may be less likely to respond to awareness-of-consequences approaches, since these persons tend to elevate personal comfort and convenience above the welfare of others. Therefore, facilitating social responsibility as it relates to reservoir reserve use, and understanding the typology of user groups, will assist in developing management strategies.

Management approaches should also consider that there is a clear relationship between the number of visitors and the likelihood of impacts occurring. Hence, setting limits on visitation numbers or providing access to only certain groups is often implemented. While this is the case, Hammitt and Cole (2015) suggest that where possible, management should focus on limiting the impacts of outdoor recreation, not necessarily limiting recreation itself. Accepting that the reservoir reserve becomes a public open space once identified for recreation, limiting the amount of recreation runs counter to the mandate to accommodate and promote public enjoyment.

Having a clear line of sight between the recreational activity impacts, the rationale of the management strategies and actions, and the recommended conditions and rules is a high priority. Furthermore, to optimise the effectiveness, this rationale needs to be explained to and accepted by visitors, and the conditions and rules need to be perceived as reasonable in order to achieve target levels of conformance.

It is also important to consider if, once visitors are informed about a regulation and understand it, their behaviour will change enough to reduce the impact to an acceptable level. The main underlying question here is whether visitors' motives, knowledge, attitudes and behaviour are understood well enough to estimate their response to applied conditions. Visitor behaviour can be changed, but more significant changes in behaviour are usually more difficult to achieve. Some knowledge of the size of the shift from the established to the desired behaviour should be considered for regulations and alternative actions (Lucas 1987).

Management response

It is broadly acknowledged that recreation will inevitably cause changes to the natural and built environment, but that “limits of acceptable change” must be established, with actions taken to minimise impacts. Managers must decide how much and what kind of recreation use is acceptable, explicitly defining when visitation-related environmental change becomes an unacceptable impact requiring management intervention. Research and monitoring can inform such decisions, but managers must make and implement them, preferably in consultation with the community of interest (Leung and Marion, 2000).

As discussed, it is inevitable that tension between visitors and the protection of reservoir reserve will occur, requiring a well-designed, structured framework to help guide management decisions and a philosophy of an iterative approach that relies on a long-term monitoring program and adaptive management.

This paper has discussed management interventions that seek to avoid or minimise recreation impacts by manipulating either use-related, environmental or site factors, or the modification of visitor behaviour through educational and regulatory actions, with examples of core strategies and tactics provided in Cole et al. (1987) that are reproduced in Table 2. These management strategies and tactics can be utilised along with a well-developed hierarchy of management intervention, with most people influenced through messaging, education, or environment or site manipulation, while a small percentage of visitors are likely to require compliance and enforcement approaches in order to achieve behavioural change.

The type of visitor action contributing to the management problem is often an important consideration (Cole 1990). For example, careless, unskilled or uninformed actions are often most appropriately addressed through communication and educational responses (Lucas 1982), while unavoidable impacts are commonly reduced by limiting access or by relocating visitation to areas that are less vulnerable (Hammitt and Cole, 2015). Whereas impacts from visitors knowingly engaging in illegal actions generally require a law enforcement response.

The expanding popularity of outdoor recreation, greater public scrutiny of management decision-making and widening demands for participatory public land management are placing greater demands on land managers to further develop and communicate the processes by which decisions are made (Krumpe and McCool 1997). Formal decision-making frameworks have been developed and applied to guide both planning and operational decisions and could be refined for application within reservoir reserves. These frameworks offer a defensible process for defining desired future resource conditions for visitor impact management, identifying impact indicators and assessing impact acceptability, conducting problem analyses, and evaluating and selecting preferred management actions (Leung and Marion, 2000).

The Western Australian Department of Water and Environmental Regulation’s operational policy 13: Recreation within public drinking water source areas on Crown land (2012 and draft update for public comment 2018), is an example of a successfully implemented framework that is operationalised through management plans and source water protection, with rangers who fulfil both education and compliance roles. The policy has a focus on excluding recreational access within reservoir protection zones (which comprise a 2km exclusion zone surrounding the high water mark of public drinking water supply reservoirs), while allowing selective recreational activity (at September 2012 usage levels) within the outer catchment area.

Similarly, Seqwater has developed a Recreation Management Framework that facilitates water-based and on-shore activities in areas adjacent to its reservoirs, while ensuring quality bulk drinking water supply for South East Queensland (Seqwater, 2013). The Framework establishes site-based Recreation Management Plans, seeks to effectively manage appropriate activities, and has a strong focus of communication and education.


This paper discusses fundamental recreational management theory within the context of reservoir reserves. It is acknowledged that recreation needs to be managed to protect the reservoir reserve, while providing a visitor experience that meets the aspirations, desires and expectations of visitors. Tension or potential conflict among stakeholders is likely to occur from managing these general divergent outcomes, and it is broadly acknowledged that recreation will inevitably cause changes to the natural and built environment, requiring that “limits of acceptable change” are established with actions taken to minimise impacts and optimise the recreational experience.

The complexities of this management challenge require a discerning management perspective. Key learnings from decades of applied recreational management theory and social psychologists can be utilised within the context of reservoir reserves.

Table 2. Strategies and tactics for managing recreation impacts to resources or visitor experiences .(Source: Cole et al. 1987)


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