Libby Metcalf goes to great lengths to find out what people think about recreation in the great outdoors.

Chances are you’ve seen the University of Montana professor or her students at trailheads standing next to a large, bright orange and white sign that says “Recreational Survey Please Stop.” She wants to know if people were satisfied with the natural environment and facilities that were provided. She asks what benefited the person — Nature? Solitude? Time spent with friends and families?

“I tend to ask a lot of questions,” Metcalf said with a laugh. “I’m interested in getting everyone outdoors and experiencing all our public lands have to offer. So I want to know what are the constraints that keep you from recreating here.”

Metcalf is a social scientist, specializing in the “human dimensions of natural resources.” In other words, while state and federal agencies manage Montana’s critters and vegetation on public lands, Metcalf is more interested in the complex social psychology of people recreating on those lands.

“We also need to manage the social landscape. That means we’re continually evolving and understanding how the general public recreates,” Metcalf said.

Sitting in her fourth-floor office, “The Handbook of Social Psychology” sits on her desk, while the books “American Outdoors” and “Animal Dreams” are among those on her bookshelves. With a Bushnell spotting scope aimed at Mount Sentinel, Metcalf jokes that the scope is to ensure her students are in class instead of on a hike, but readily acknowledges that it’s handy to check out the elk from her unobstructed view.

It’s also a glimpse of some of the larger questions she’s pondered for the past decade: How does nature nurture the inner child in the great outdoors for humans of all ages? How do we make the outdoors more accessible to everyone? Where is the tipping point for loving a place to death?

Social science and wildlife

“As a social scientist, she brings a unique perspective to wildlife management,” said Josh Millspaugh, the Boone and Crockett professor of wildlife conservation, who team teaches a Hunting for Sustainability class with Metcalf. “She sees things through a different lens, given her work in the social sciences arena.

“I’m a field biologist and see things like population numbers. Libby brings the human dimension and the human component to issues like harvest management for wildlife.”

For example, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is trying to figure out how to manage areas where elk that test positive for brucellosis exposure might mingle with cattle grazing on public or private lands. Metcalf is one of the social scientists who worked with FWP on trying to understand the public’s tolerance for elk management actions in those areas.

“She helps the commission and our agency understand and manage them for the public, to know what they want and rank those values,” said Quentin Kujala, FWP’s Wildlife Management Section chief. “What is the greatest public tolerance for non-lethal responses, like hazing (elk) or fencing hay stacks? But we also need help understanding the circumstances where tolerance of lethal removal is stronger; for example, where hunting is a tool.

“Understanding that dynamic is valuable for us. We plug it into our discussions with groups. It helps our work plans take a sequenced approach to brucellosis.”

Kujala said this practice of looking at the human dimension is a relatively recent addition to the toolkit used by FWP, which now includes that position in its Responsive Management division.

“We have a history of using it, but it’s not as long as the number of years we’ve been doing elk counts,” Kujala said.

The $7.1 billion rec industry

Millspaugh adds that for him and the students, Metcalf is a valuable asset.

“She adds a dimension that’s extremely important when you think of the challenges of modern wildlife management and the growing importance of recreation to our economy,” Millspaugh said.

A recent study by Headwaters Economics noted that outdoor recreation generated $7.1 billion in consumer spending and more than 71,000 jobs in Montana in 2016, helping to diversify the Treasure State’s economy.

That’s important to Metcalf, who notes that the common thread in her work is how to promote access to outdoor recreation to all people, whether they live in the inner city, are part of certain ethnic groups whose numbers are few on Montana’s landscapes, have disabilities, are elderly or are young.

“I’m interested in getting everyone outdoors and experiencing all the public lands have to offer,” Metcalf said. “No matter what the topic, access and exposure to the outdoors is what everyone wants.”

Metcalf is a Connecticut native with a dual doctorate in Recreation, Parks and Tourism Management and the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources and the Environment. She’s worked on statewide studies in Montana examining outdoor recreation, hunter recruitment and retention, and river management, with a focus on attitudes, values and belief systems.

She grew up rock climbing, mountain biking and doing other adventure recreating back East. But her studies as a grad student often brought her to Oregon and Washington, where she looked into visitor management issues, including conflicts between snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, and how to get urban dwellers in Seattle to visit their national forests.

She moved to Missoula about 10 years ago after accepting an associate professor of recreation and natural resource management in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation at UM.

Since then, she’s helped Montana FWP make basic changes to fishing and hunting regulation guidebooks after hearing people say they’re too confusing to read and are too complex.

Metcalf also tried to help the state agency with the clashes among outfitters, guides and the general public on the Madison and West Fork of the Bitterroot rivers. And she’s currently putting together data she and her students collected into a Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan or “SCORP” that will help guide the allocation of federal Land and Water Conservation Funds for the next five years.

“That’s been really exciting, and will go out for public comment in the middle of the month,” Metcalf said. “We’re trying to know what our state’s goals and priorities are for outdoor recreation, so we went around the state of Montana and asked leaders in outdoor recreation fields, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), agencies and businesses what were their most pressing needs for outdoor recreation. Then we came up with a series of goals and recommendations for the Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars.”

After the public comment period, groups will be able to apply for grants to promote outdoor recreation. 

The biggest issue that stood out was unlocking access to land-locked public lands, Metcalf said.

“We should do that, but it’s a puzzle that’s challenging and has some constraints,” she added.

Get out

Metcalf gets out on public lands to hike, bike and hunt, but quickly adds that she’s a bit more limited in her activities this day with children age 2 and 4.

“I’m more cognizant of different life stages as a parent,” Metcalf said. “There are a lot of different needs at different life stages.”

Still, her husband, Alex Metcalf, also a faculty member in the College of Forestry and Conservation, gave her a bow for Mother’s Day, and she’s excited to participate in the archery season this year.

And chances are, when she’s out in the field she’ll continue asking people questions.

“I’m really bad when I’m out recreating. It’s really bad,” Metcalf said, laughing again and shaking her head. “My husband doesn’t like me to become ‘Dr. Libby’ when we’re out recreating. But sometimes I just can’t help myself.”

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