New River Symposium 1984
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Joseph W. Roggenbuck
Steven P. Bange
Department of Forestry
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State Univ.


The New River Gorge National River, an approximately 50 mile segment of river between Hinton and Fayetteville, West Virginia, was established as a unit of the National Park System by an Act of Congress (Public Law 95-625) in 1978. The law called for conserving the outstanding natural, scenic, and historic values and objects in and around the New River Gorge, interpreting the resources for the visiting public, and preserving the free-flowing river for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations. The National Park Service thus has a dual and potentially contradictory management mandate for the New River Gorge. It must protect the river in its natural state, but it must also provide for recreational use and enjoyment. Since any use causes some change from natural conditions, the National Park Service must decide how much change is acceptable. In the final analysis, this decision is a judgment call which the agency must make on the basis of its legal and policy mandates, analyses of resource and experience impacts, and inputs from appropriate user publics.

The National Park Service typically uses a carrying-capacity-based decision-making strategy when deciding how much and what kind of use and impacts are acceptable, and this approach was mandated by Public Law 95-625 establishing the New River Gorge National River. The carrying capacity of an area for recreational use is the amount, type, and distribution of use that can occur without unacceptable change in the nature or quality of the resource or the recreational experience. Four types of recreational capacity are typically recognized: physical, ecological, facilities, and social. The physical capacity of the New River for recreational boating is the number of boats that could safely float the river at any one time. It would be determined largely by the size, depth, configuration, and flow patterns of the river. Ecological capacity refers to ecosystem parameters. For example, too much boater use might result in an unacceptable drop in water quality, destruction of vegetation at popular river bank attractions or lunch stops, or erosion at put-in or take-out points. Facilities capacity refers to structures or developments that control access to and use of the river. The number and quality of roads, size of parking lots, and size and number of put-in and take-out areas are examples of facility parameters. Social carrying capacity refers to the nature of the experiences that boaters receive from the river trip. Social capacity is exceeded when the amount or nature of interactions among visitors is such that the nature of the experience is changed in an unacceptable manner. In most analysis of social carrying capacity, the key variables are contacts and conflicts among recreationists.

Social carrying capacity is often considered the most limiting type in scenic, wild, and wilderness river settings. For example, facilities capacity can be easily altered through input of development dollars and additional management manpower. Neoprene rafts and people sitting in rafts appear to have little impact on ecosystems, especially on trips of one day or less. Physical capacity is generally very high. Thousands of rafts could likely be simultaneously placed on and float safely through the New River Gorge; but long before this number had been reached, the nature of the experience would have been changed.


The study reported here, limited as it was to a "first cut" of the carrying-capacity issue, addressed social carrying capacity. Our study goal was to provide an assessment of the social carrying capacity of the New River Gorge National River for national park experiences. Specific task objectives included the following:

1) to describe and evaluate river user experience preferences and trip expectations;

2) to identify the existence and sources of conflicts among recreationists and to evaluate methods for reducing or eliminating them; and

3) to evaluate and recommend a strategy for identifying acceptable amounts and types of river use, and to suggest guidelines for managing use within capacity.


The carrying capacity concept in general, and social carrying capacity in particular, is exceedingly complex. For the concept to be operational, boaters must share social norms about the appropriate experience(s) to be provided on the river, and appropriate levels of those experiences (Shelby and Heberlein, in press Shelby, 198 ). What is a quality recreation experience for one river user may not be for another. One boater may seek solitude, but another may seek companionship with a group of friends. The social carrying capacity of the river to provide these two experiences likely differs, and a value judgment must be made on what kind of experience or combinations of experiences are to be provided. Such a value judgment lies at the heart of all carrying capacity decisions, must be made by the resource manager, and is made easier when legislation or policy clearly states values to be gained from the resource or when there is a concensus among managers and user publics about appropriate experiences. The values to be gained from use of the resource should be stated in the management objectives for the area, and might be described in terms of the experiences to be provided. Public input can often help the manager make this value judgment.

The second value judgment which must be made when addressing social carrying capacity is to select an evaluative standard for the experience(s) to be provided. The evaluative standard determines the level of the impact parameter that is tolerable (the maximum) or most desirable (the optimum). For example, a river management objective may state that solitude is to be provided on the river, but an evaluative standard is needed to identify the appropriate number, type, and/or location of encounters to attain that experience. Again the manager must make this value judgment, but user opinions can help make the decision, particularly when a consensus exists among relevant user publics.

Finally, if the variable(s) that most influence solitude are identified, then managers must be able to manipulate those variables if they are to manage for this experience. For example, if number of contacts between boaters per trip is the key variable, then managers must be able to manipulate such parameters as number of boats launched per unit of time, time of launch, place of launch, and/or travel patterns down the river.

Shelby and Heberlein (in press) have summarized this conceptual perspective by stating the following three conditions necessary for the establishment of social carrying capacity:

Rule 1: There must be agreement among relevant groups about the type of recreation experience to be provided.

Rule 2: There must be agreement among the relevant groups about the appropriate levels of the experience parameter.

Rule 3: There must be a known relationship between use level or other management parameter and the experience parameter.

If our study was to achieve its goal, then conditions on the New River must satisfy these three rules.


The land along the New River is virtually all in private ownership with no National Park Service public use facilities on the river. Boating access to the river is by numerous privately-owned sites, and egress from the river is by a few private sites. Even with these constraints, recreational use of the New River within the New River Gorge National River for float trip use has increased dramatically in recent years. The first commercial whitewater river outfitter was established on the New River in 1969. The number now exceeds 20. The National Park Service estimates that use of the lower 15-mile stretch of the river, a stretch that contains about 20 major rapids and some of the best whitewater in the East, exceeded 83,000 people in 1982 (NPS New River Gorge Use Study, 1982). One day use occasionally exceeded 1200 persons.

Recreational use of the river is also characterized by much diversity in type and time of use. About 92% of all boating use is commercial, the remaining 8% are private boaters in canoes, kayaks, and rafts. Virtually all river use occurs in the months of April through September, and about 72% of the boating use takes place in the Memorial Day to Labor Day summer season. Average weekend and holiday boating use in the lower 15-mile whitewater gorge is 1,015 persons per day; weekday use is 193 persons per day. Average weekend use upstream from the Gorge is 45 persons per day; weekday use averages 18 people. Almost all river trips are day use only. Finally, most trips are concentrated during the middle of the day, with most boats launching during mid-morning and leaving the river mid to late afternoon.


Sampling and Questionnaire

Our data collection season was the summer and fall of 1982, and spring of 1983. We wanted enough private and commercial boaters to permit further breakdown by such managerially relevant variables as season of year, weekend-weekday use, and location and size of the river trip. Our conceptual model suggested that more consensus among norms about appropriate experiences, kinds and amounts of use, and management strategies might exist within these subgroups than across the entire sample. If this were the case, then river managers could potentially provide different experiences for distinct user groups at different times and places on the river. The river would thus have several different carrying capacities, each with different management scenarios. Given this, our sample size target was 300 private and 300 commercial boaters.

Within each month of the study season, sampling was stratified by commercial and private boaters, upriver and downriver (the lower-15 mile whitewater gorge), and weekends and weekdays. This gave eight sampling strata, and we had a total of 116 sampling days.

Within the commercial strata, one of the 19 commercial outfitters cooperating in the study was randomly selected for each sampling day. The research technician would then travel to the outfitter's base camp, contact boaters of high school age or above just prior to their trip, ask their cooperation in the study, and obtain trip expectation data. On private sampling days, the technician would travel to randomly selected access points and await the arrival of private boaters. Information collected at the pretrip contact among privates was identical to that of the commercial boaters. After the trip, all sample subjects were mailed a 10-page questionnaire, the study's primary data collection instrument. (For more details about the study's data collection procedures and a copy of the survey instruments, see Roggenbuck and Bange, 1983).

Response Rates

During the fieldseason, 942 boaters agreed to participate in the study; only 12 refused to do so. Of the 942, 916 gave useable addresses. Of these, 616 (341 commercials and 275 privates) returned a completed posttrip questionnaire, for a response rate of 67%. A nonresponse bias check indicated no more differences between respondents and nonrespondents than would be expected from chance alone, so data adjustments due to nonresponse were not deemed necessary.


Preferred experiences

At the field contact, boaters were asked which of the following three trip experiences they expected: (1) a wilderness whitewater trip — a trip through a scenic gorge with little evidence of man, many opportunities for solitude, and a chance for challenge and for you to battle the waves; (2) a scenic whitewater trip — a trip through a scenic gorge with some evidence of man, fewer opportunities for solitude, and guidance when running wild rapids; or (3) a social recreation trip — a trip on a scenic river with much evidence of man, exciting rapids, and seeing other people on the river makes the trip more fun. In the posttrip questionnaire, boaters were asked which experience they received and which they thought the river should offer. These three experience descriptions were identified in an effort to cover the range of potential experiences on a New River trip. Ideally, they would have been developed through informal interviews with experienced boaters. This was not possible with the short planning horizon of the study, and instead river managers and outfitters were consulted. The three experience types appeared to be meaningful, feasible, and legal options on a National Park Service river. If these experiences were not being provided now, then through proper management they might be offered in the future.

Table 1 lists the commercial and private boaters' opinions about appropriate river experiences. Among the commercial boaters who responded, about 48% expected a wilderness whitewater trip; 40% a scenic whitewater trip, and 12% a social recreation trip. About 29% said they received a wilderness experience; 53% a scenic experience, and 18% a social recreation experience. About 42% said the river should provide a wilderness trip, 50% a scenic trip, and 8% a social trip. Among the private boaters who returned the questionnaire, 53% expected a wilderness trip; 30% a scenic trip, and 17% a social recreation trip. Only 27% said they received a wilderness experience, 50% a scenic trip, and 23% a social recreation trip. When asked what experience the river should provide, 39% of the private boaters said a wilderness trip, 52% a scenic trip, and 8% a social recreation trip.

Table 1
Breakdown of commercial and private boaters by type of river trip expected, received, and should be offered

Type of Experience


N%N% N%N%

   Commercial16248 13339 3911 72
   Private14452 8230 4717 21
   Commercial9327 17451 5917 154
   Private7126 13348 6022 114
Should be offered
   Commercial13439 15947 268 227
   Private10237 13549 228 166

These percentages suggest first of all that for some boaters, both among the commercials and the privates, the experience was not what they expected nor what they felt it should be. Too few boaters received wilderness experiences, and too many received social recreation experiences. This finding was supported by boater response to numbers of boats or people seen on the river trip. Almost 40% of the private boaters and 34% of the commercial boaters felt they saw too many people on their trip. More than 30% of the private boaters felt their percentage of time in sight of other river trips was unacceptable, and about 25% felt the large number of other boats seen, the average size of other trips seen, and the number of rapids waited at were unacceptable. Over 25% of the commercial users said the same about their percent of time in sight of other trips, and over 20% felt the number of boats they saw on the river and the number of rapids they waited at were unacceptable.

Inter-group conflicts appear even greater at certain times and places on the river. About 45% of the weekend boaters said they saw too many people and that their percent of total time in sight of other groups was unacceptable. More than 50% felt they saw too many people on summer weekends in the 15-mile whitewater gorge, the river zone which receives the greatest use.

Does this mean that the New River Gorge is being used beyond its social carrying capacity? Not necessarily. It depends upon the experiences that the National Park Service decides to provide there. Rule 1 of the Shelby-Heberlein conceptual model of carrying capacity states that there must be agreement among relevant groups about the type of recreation experience to be provided. Table 1 indicates that there is some diversity of opinion among current boaters. About half believe the trip should be a scenic whitewater trip; a significant minority vote for wilderness, and a few favor the social recreation trip. This diversity of opinion makes the NPS's decision more difficult. The agency could decide to provide for the distribution of experiences sought among current boaters. For example, it may be possible to establish distinct temporal and/or spatial zones on the river, manage the river zones for the distribution of experiences sought, and assist the users in getting themselves to the right zone. Under this scenario, those seeking a wilderness experience may have to visit the river on spring weekdays; those seeking a scenic experience may have to take their trip on a summer weekday or launch their trip very early in the morning on a summer week end. The social recreation trip would be offered on the midday, summer weekend trips in the lower gorge.

In another scenario, the National Park Service could take a regional perspective as called for by many carrying capacity theorists (e.g. Wagar 1974). Given this perspective, the National Park Service would work with other river management agencies and relevant publics in the region to make certain that scarce river experiences are retained and duplication of experiences is avoided. Under the strategy, management objectives for the New River Gorge might call for provision of experiences intermediate on the spectrum between highly social and highly solitary. The Greenbriar, Bluestone, or Gauley might provide for near wilderness experiences, and the Youghiogheny might offer social, high density experience. If this strategy were adopted, the resource agencies would need to inform user publics, and help them match experience preferences with expetiences offered.

Trip conditions and preferred experiences

If managers are to provide the appropriate experience or mix of experiences on the New River, they must know the trip conditions that influence whether these experiences are gained. As Table 2 indicates, there was a significant tendency for more contacts with other boats, greater percentage of time in sight of other trips, and more rapids waited at to be associated with rating the trip as a social recreation experience. The fewer such contacts, the greater the likelihood that the trip was rated a wilderness experience. However, the highest correlation was only .30 (for the percent of time in sight of boats from other trips). Other variables besides contact levels determine type of experience gained.

Table 2
Relationships between use variables and whether a wilderness, scenic, or social recreation trip was received

Use variableCorrelation1,2

Number of boats from other trips seen on the river.24
Percent of time in sight of boats from other trips.30
Number of rapids waited at to let other trips pass through.26

1Positive correlations indicate that an increase in the use variable is associated with an increase in the tendency for the experience received to be a social recreation trip.

2All correlation coefficients significant
at p<.01.

As a check to see if we had identified the most important trip variables, we correlated other inter-group contact measures (boats seen floating past lunch stop, boats seen at take-out point, and size of other river trips seen), intra-group variables (number of people on boat, number of boats on the trip, and how will boaters in the trip get along), actions taken on the river to avoid contacts (speed up the trip, slow down the trip, pass preferred attractions and pass preferred lunch stops) and 20 potential river resource problems with type of river experience received. None of these correlations exceeded .20. Thus, while none of the three variables we emphasized in the study individually explained a great deal of variance in type of experience gained, they had stronger associations than other variables measured. Future research must focus on multi-variate relationships, although this would make the task of decision-making and management more difficult.

Standards for relevant trip conditions

Rule 2 of the Shelby-Heberlein carrying capacity model suggests that relevant groups must agree on appropriate levels of important experience parameter(s). In our case we sought to find out whether boaters would agree on appropriate levels of the most important parameter identified: percent of total trip time in sight of other trips for wilderness, scenic, and social recreation experiences. We tried to determine whether boaters shared social norms about appropriate contact time.

Table 3 indicates that about 60% of the study boaters suggested an acceptable percentage of time in sight of other trips for a wilderness whitewater trip. This number dropped to about 50% for scenic whitewater trips, and to about 30% for social recreation trips. Another 20%, 20%, and 13%, respectively, said the percent of contact time did matter for a wilderness, scenic, and social recreation trip, but that they couldn't suggest an acceptable number. Finally about 20%, 30%, and 60% said that percent of time in sight of other trips didn't matter for a wilderness, scenic, or social recreation trip.

Table 3
Breakdown of whether commercial and private boaters have norms about acceptable percentages of time in sight of boats from other trips for wilderness, scenic, or social recreation experiences

Suggested an
Didn't suggest an acceptable percentage
Type of river

% of time in sight
of other tripsdidn't matter
% of time in sight
of other trips did
matter, but couldn't
suggest a number

N%N% N%

   Commercial19759.2 5616.8 8024.0
   Private16661.9 5721.3 4516.8
   Commercial15547.3 9228.0 8124.7
   Private13250.8 8231.5 4617.7
Social recreation
   Commercial8726.7 18657.1 5316.2
   Private8633.5 14857.6 238.9

These percentages suggest that most boaters do have norms about acceptable percent contact time for a wilderness experience and managers might gain valuable input from them when making decisions. Most boaters also feel that percent contact time does influence a scenic trip, but only about half could help managers set appropriate standards. Few boaters have norms about acceptable contact levels for a social recreation trip. Most said the percent of contact time didn't matter or that they couldn't suggest an acceptable level.

Table 4 lists acceptable percentages of time in sight of boats from other trips for wilderness, scenic, and social recreation trips for those boaters who had norms about acceptable contact levels. There were no differences in the mean acceptable contact levels for a wilderness whitewater trip across four potential boater clientele groups (commercial or private trip, season of trip, time of week of trip, and river segment floated). The mean acceptable trip contact time for the four groups generally ranged from 17-20%. There was somewhat less consensus among the boaters on what would be acceptable contact times for a scenic trip. Most boater groups, however, suggested a mean of 30-40% of total trip time as an acceptable level. Among those with opinions about acceptable contact times for a social recreation trip, most boater groups had a mean acceptable level of 45-50% of total trip contact time.

Table 4
Mean Acceptable percentages of time to be in sight of boats from other trips for wilderness, scenic, and social recreation experiences for boater clientele groups

Boater clientele
NMean NMean NMean

All boaters1 36318.6 28731.8 17347.6
Trip type
   Commercial 19717.5 15529.0 8746.0
   Private 16619.9 13235.2 8649.2
   Spring 1110.2 1017.0 827.9
   Summer 33318.9 26431.9 15648.3
   Fall 1817.5 1240.8 952.0
Time of week
   Weekend 22019.8 17235.2 10550.8
   Weekday 14216.8 11426.5 6842.6
River Location
   Upriver 4119.6 3330.7 2145.3
   Gorge 27318.5 21831.7 13048.6

1Median acceptable percentages for all boaters were as follows:
  Wilderness = 10.0
  Scenic = 25.0
  Social = 50.0

Managers could adopt these mean normative scores (or the median scores reported in Table 4) as experience standards to be achieved on the river. When they do so, however, managers should be aware that (1) other factors besides contact time influence type of trip experience gained, (2) for some boaters, contact time doesn't relate to type of experience gained, and (3) measures of the mean or median are simply central points around which preferences fell.

Comparing conditions with standards

The next step in carrying-capacity-based management is to compare existing river conditions to standards. Managerially relevant subunits of the New River system might be defined by river segment, season of the year, and weekend-weekday. These three temporal and spatial variables give 12 potential management subunits. Table 5 lists current median percentages of trip time in sight of boats from other trips for river users in each of the subunits, and this permits a comparison of trip conditions with standards. The 15-mile gorge on some weekends with its 80% contact time fails to meet acceptable standards for even a social recreation trip. Additional evidence suggesting that this management unit is below standard is that 53% of its boaters said they saw too many people while on their trip. The gorge on summer weekdays, on fall weekends, and the upper river (the river above the gorge) on summer weekends and weekdays either provides or comes very close to providing a scenic recreation experience. The other seven river subunits are apparently providing wilderness experiences — though we must qualify this statement somewhat because of small sample sizes. The small sample sizes do, however, indicate that few boaters floated these river segments on sample days, and this would suggest that wilderness experiences were being provided.

Table 5
Current median percentages of trip time in sight of boats from other trips for boaters in 12 different subunits of the New River

Management SubunitMedian contact time
N% of total
trip time

Gorge summer weekend24680
Gorge summer weekday14925
Gorge fall weekend527.5
Gorge fall weekday81
Gorge spring weekend67.5
Gorge spring weekday142

Upriver summer weekend5227.5
Upriver summer weekday2015
Upriver fall weekend0
Upriver fall weekday0
Upriver spring weekend2.5
Upriver spring weekday0

Corrective prescriptions for conditions below standards

If managers are to reduce contact levels in the gorge on summer weekends, there must be a relationship between some variable that managers can manipulate and the experience parameter (percent contact time with other river trips) of interest. This is Rule 3 of the Shelby-Heberlein model. In our case, there was a significant and strong correlation for Gorge boaters between percent of time in sight of other trips and number of boats launched that day (r=.65) and number of trips launched that day (r=.60). Thus, managers can alter percent contact time by altering number of boats or trips on the river.

The support for the tradeoffs by private and commercial gorge summer weekend boaters was similar, having the same rank order and very similar mean scores. Strongest support was for a departure time earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon. Only 6% of the Gorge summer weekend boaters said they would not do this; 46% said they probably would, and 48% said they definitely would. These boaters also supported taking a trip earlier or later in the river use season when the weather was less likely to be ideal. Twenty-eight percent said they wouldn't do this, but 45% said they probably would, and 27% said they definitely would. Strong support was also indicated for taking a trip during midweek rather than on a weekend. About 35% said they wouldn't do this, but 35% indicated they probably would, and 30% said they definitely would.

There was less support for a system of limited river use permits; 50% of the gorge summer weekend boaters would not support this management alternative; 30% and 20% probably or definitely would. Support was even lower for floating a river section (e.g. the river upstream from the gorge) that has fewer rapids and lower use. Eighty percent of the gorge summer weekend boaters said they wouldn't do this, 12% and 8% said they probably would or definitely would. Thus, from the boaters' perspective, shifting use through time in the gorge is a viable management action. Shifting use out of the gorge is not. Limiting river use has some support.


Our study suggests that some current boaters on the New River Gorge National River perceive overuse problems. These problems were not persuasive through time and space on the river, but were instead concentrated on the lower 15-mile whitewater gorge on summer weekends. There more than half the boaters said they saw too many people. Also, more people said the river should be a wilderness whitewater trip than received such an experience. Conversely, more boaters said they received a social recreation trip than felt such a trip was appropriate.

Judgment on whether this perceived overuse exceeds social carrying capacity cannot be made until the National Park Service specifies what experience or mix of experiences it seeks to provide on the river. Management objectives should specify appropriate experiences, and then should be stated in the proposed River Management Plan. Selecting experience objectives is typically a complex task, and will certainly be so for the New River. In addition to current boater preferences, the National Park Service must also consider legislative mandates, its long standing policy and tradition, and other important clientele groups. And our research suggests that there is a diversity of opinion even among current users.

One possible solution is to call for a variety of experiences at different times and places on the river. Current river use and resource characteristics make this approach appear feasible. If so, the river could have a variety of social carrying capacities, and the primary management task would become one of matching experience preferences with experiences provided. Boaters appear willing to alter their behavior to achieve the experience they seek. For example, a large majority of summer weekend boaters in the gorge said they probably or definitely would alter their time of day of departure, switch to a weekday trip, or switch to lesser-use seasons in order to achieve their desired trip experience.

Finally, our research suggests two additional notes of caution for river managers. First, trip variables besides total trip contact time with other boats explain type of experience gained. While this variables was most important of the inter-group, intra-group, and perceived resource problem variables measured, its explanatory power was relatively low. Managers must remember that the river experience is multidimensional, and many other factors such as guide behavior and pre-trip expectations likely affect the type of experience gained. Second, for those boaters who said total trip contact time with other boats impacted upon their experience, many did not feel qualified to suggest an appropriate contact level. While the numbers of such boaters may be higher than typical on the New River (because of the large number of first-time users), river managers should be careful not to force boaters to provide precise experience capacity numbers. Some boaters appeared to say that while contact levels with other trips was a salient issue, they were willing for the time being to acquiesce to those with more experience on what is appropriate.


Roggenbuck, J. W. and S. P. Bange. 1983. An assessment of the float-trip carrying capacity of the New River Gorge National River. Final Report prepared for the New River Gorge National River, National Park Service. Dept. of Forestry, VPI&SU, Blacksburg, VA 24060.

Shelby, B. 1981. Encounter norms in backcountry settings. Journal of Leisure Research 13(2): 129-138.

Shelby, B. and T. A. Heberlein. In press. Social carrying capacity in recreation settings. Mimeographed copy received from T. A. Heberlein, Dept. of Rural Sociology, U. of Wisconsin, Madison.

U. S. Dept. of Interior, National Park Service. 1983. New River Gorge Use Study — 1982. Mimeographed paper received from the New River Gorge National River. 8p.

Wagar, J. A. 1974. Recreational carrying capacity reconsidered. Journal of Forestry. 72(5):274-278.

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Last Updated: 08-Jul-2009