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Nov. 20, 2018

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Are Ontarians Loving Nature to Death?

My honours Geography thesis, supervised by Dr. Christopher Lemieux, examines the impacts and implications of increased visitation at the Spencer Gorge Conservation Area (SGCA). The SGCA is a small Conservation Area located in southwestern Ontario, near Hamilton. It is managed by the Hamilton Conservation Authority (HCA). In recent years, the total annual number of visitors to this conservation area has nearly doubled, from 80,000 visitors during 2013 during peak season (May to October) to 140,000 in 2015. Consequently, the HCA has been struggling to manage the crowds and associated vehicular traffic, despite implementing significant increases in entrance fees. Conflicts within the local community have emerged, and environmental degradation is occurring within the SGCA. However, it is not known how this large surge in visitation is affecting overall visitor satisfaction. My thesis focuses on understanding these issues so that evidence-informed policy and management responses can be implemented by the HCA.

The first step of my research was to identify the current level of visitor satisfaction within the SGCA. Visitor satisfaction surveys were conducted from August to October 2018. During my time in the field, I saw first-hand the impacts of increased tourism, and the management challenges that the HCA is facing. There was a constant line of people walking through the park, most of them coming from nearby urban areas to enjoy nature for the day, not expecting the crowds they encountered.

Over the next month, I will analyze the results from the visitor surveys to identify and understand visitor satisfaction within the conservation area. The results will then be presented to the HCA to gauge their perceptions of the results and on the current state of visitor experiences at the conservation area. With perceptions from both the managers and visitors, the efficacy of current management strategies will be assessed, and recommendations that will help the HCA manage the impacts associated with this increase in visitation at the SGCA will be developed. This research focuses on an increasingly important issue within and near growing urbanized areas, where the demand for natural areas is increasing, and issues of overcrowding are becoming more prevalent.

The most surprising finding throughout this research has been the growth in number of visitors. I’ve worked at the park for many years, starting as a tractor driver and then moved to front gate staff, so I’ve seen the numbers of visitors grow first-hand. Even with this insight, the sheer number of people that visit the park is surprising. Even with the shuttle and the price changes, the amount of visitors is high. The cost used to be $10 to park one car, now the cost for a family of five is $35. ($10 for parking and $5/person).

After reading about my research, I hope that the public learns that you need to be contentious about how sensitive conservation areas are, and that managing the needs of the natural environment and the desire to provide the ability for people to experience nature is difficult.

I hope that HCA will learn more about the perceptions of the visitors and the demographic changes of who they are advertising to and who is visiting the park. I was surprised to find issues when doing my survey work with visitors who can’t read English, and this, even anecdotally, represents a change in park visitor demographics. 

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