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UM professor to give prestigious lecture

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Will Rice

Will Rice, an assistant professor of outdoor recreation and wildland management at the University of Montana, recently published a study on the exclusionary effects of national parks' reservation systems.

Years of data-combing and traveling to America’s most beloved national parks has paid off for Will Rice.

The assistant professor of outdoor recreation and wildland management at the University of Montana has inked several deals to run assessments of access to federal, state and local parks, and was recently featured in the New York Times.

But for the first time, Rice will present a virtual talk to the National Academy of Sciences Distinctive Voices lecture series on Wednesday. The lecture focuses on his specialty of finding equitable access in the outdoors.

“I just got incredibly lucky,” Rice said. "We are really sought out."

Rice specializes in research on wilderness and recreation spaces. His job helps find a balance between park managers who see a high demand for recreation and the growing number of people interested in the outdoors.

He most recently published a study unearthing the exclusionary effects reservation systems have in highly sought-after camping spots in national parks.

The study found white, higher-income ZIP codes are more likely to secure reservations to places like Glacier National Park and the Grand Canyon. Rice attributed the inequity to the amount of effort and planning a reservation takes, requiring someone to book up to six months in advance — often competing against thousands of others for the chance of one spot.

“The pandemic was a catalyst for a boom in recreation, not just nationwide but around the world,” Rice said, citing that more than 67% of Americans now occasionally camp. “If you can’t take time off that far ahead or you don’t have fast internet, you can get left behind.”

The professor first found his love for the outdoors when clearing trails along Yellowstone National Park and Wind Cave National Park. When he wasn’t studying at Clemson University, he worked as a park ranger. During a fellowship in Alaska, it clicked that he also enjoyed learning and applying his own research.

He got his bachelor's degree from Clemson in 2016, his master's from Penn State in recreation, parks and tourism in 2018, and a Ph.D. in human dimensions of natural resources in 2020. When he saw an open job position at UM, he jumped right into the opportunity.

“I found that I had a strong interest in research and a passion for the outdoors, and I wanted to explore those,” Rice said. “I discovered there were some major outdoor management needs, and no research on it.”

Rice has now published a flurry of recreation research papers, many centering on America’s most visited parks. When he first started, some of his projects came with no grant backing or financial support. It wasn’t until a 2019 conference in Australia that he started getting the ball rolling.

“The interest there was so high I had to do more of this work," he said.

Laurie Yung, chair for the outdoor recreation and wildland management department at the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, said while Rice is a junior faculty member at UM, he is one of the leading scholars in his field worldwide.

“I've been very impressed with Will's ability to focus his research on some of the most pressing issues in outdoor recreation,” Yung said. “He's already building local partnerships that connect students to community projects to benefit Missoula.”

Rice is currently working with the city of Missoula to put together a visitor-use study on the Rattlesnake Recreation Area. He tracks volunteers using GPS signals, followed by a survey that asks what improvements people would like to see in the open space.

Peter Whitney, a first-year graduate student at the school of forestry, has worked on several projects with Rice since he enrolled at the university last fall. He worked alongside Rice and professors Jaclyn Rushing and Jennifer Thomson on the camping equity study published last year.

He wanted to learn more about humans' relation with nature to complement his restoration ecology degree, and that’s when he found Rice’s website.

“He’s just a generally approachable, nice guy,” Whitney said. “I feel really lucky to get to be a part of all these projects through him. His passion really shows through in his work.”

To Rice, park managers need to diversify their recreation opportunities to keep up with the “unprecedented demand” from interest in the outdoors. Rice called back to a framework recreational theory by George H. Stankey, who in 1979 wrote, “The recreation opportunity spectrum: a framework for planning, management, and research.”

Essentially, Stankey believes the more diverse experiences for different users, the better access you can give an entire population.

“Take Grand Canyon National Park,” Rice explained. “One campsite there has campgrounds, equestrian spaces and other spots for trailers or RV sites. We need to go back to diversity on how we allocate things.”

Rice takes the idea one step further, arguing that park reservation systems should have several different times to access an entry ticket instead of six months in advance.

By adding one or two separate months of ticket allotments, a week prior or same-day lottery chance style, more people would have a shot at getting a spot. Until then, Rice will continue to study the data, hoping to add more to his growing highlight reel.

“This is where I want to be,” Rice said. “A place with a rich history around outdoor research.”

Rice’s lecture, “When the Last Campsite Fills: Allocation of Outdoor Recreation in an Age of Extreme Scarcity,” will be streamed online at 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 22. To watch, visit livestream.com/nasem/0622rice.

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