A Passion for Outdoor Recreation Research

    Associate Professor Howie Harshaw lives his passion for outdoor recreation through his work

    By Lauren Walter on July 20, 2017

    Drawn to the University of Alberta for the unique opportunity to specialize in recreation research, Dr. Howie Harshaw lives his passion for outdoor recreation through his work. Outdoor recreation plays an important role in Dr. Harshaw’s life, and has inspired his research on how it can change our perspectives about the environment, and how outdoor activities can strengthen our relationships with family and friends.

    Already an experienced and passionate researcher, Dr. Harshaw has only begun. We sat down with Howie to get to know him better and to learn more about his recreation research.

    Q&A Questions:

    What first interested you in attending Lakehead University for your B.A in Geography?

     My primary motivation to attend Lakehead was to earn an Honours Bachelor of Outdoor Recreation at the School of Outdoor Recreation, Parks, & Tourism. Lakehead provided the opportunity to pursue a double-degree, so I was able to earn a B.A. in Geography as well. The two degrees worked together quite well for me, as my interests are in outdoor recreation planning and management, which involves a spatial component as well as an understanding of natural resources and land-use. My time at Lakehead provided me with a foundation to investigate the human dimensions of natural resources (understanding how and why people interact with nature and natural resources, and what benefits these interactions can provide), something that I was able to specialize in for my Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia.

    How did you come into your role at the University of Alberta?

    The University of Alberta is one of the few places in Canada where a person can specialize in recreation research. The Faculty of Physical Education & Recreation’s recognition and encouragement of recreation research is what drew me here. The tripartite agreement that the Faculty has with ARPA and the Alberta Ministry of Culture and Tourism is another strength that makes UofA a great place to work, as it allows for the integration of theory and practice… I hate it when research gathers dust on a shelf.

    In your current research that looks into the dynamics of people’s interactions with waterfowl, what are you looking to discover? What impact do you hope your research will have on conservation and stewardship?

    Waterfowl hunting and bird watching provide excellent examples of some of the benefits to conservation that outdoor recreation can provide. Although the number of waterfowl hunters has been declining since the mid-1970s, the number of bird watchers has exploded. I am interested in understanding the dynamics of outdoor recreation participation — why does interest in some activities decline while interest in other activities increases? Both hunters and bird watchers make valuable contributions to the conservation of wildlife and their habitats. By better understanding outdoor recreation preferences, natural resource and park planners and managers can better provide opportunities that meet people’s expectations. I think that if we can create and maintain natural places and spaces that people want to be in, we can strengthen people’s connections to nature and perhaps change how people view nature and natural resources.

    Part of your research is examining how social capital plays a role in the relationships that people have with forested landscapes. Why was in important for you to investigate this?

    At its heart, outdoor recreation is a social activity. People often engage in outdoor recreation with family and friends, and this strengthens their social networks. Social networks provide benefits like access to new information and social support — these benefits are called social capital. I am curious about how outdoor recreation facilitates this exchange of information and support, particularly information about environmental values: What role do outdoor recreation-based social networks play in developing people’s environmental worldviews? Another important part of promoting social capital has to do with resilience, and this is particularly important in a world affected by climate change. Climate change presents us with many challenges; in a recreation context, changing landscapes can affect recreation opportunities — how we deal with these changes has a lot to do with the information that we have access to. People who have diverse social networks have a greater chance of having access to a variety of information, which can be helpful for adapting to climate change (e.g., new paces to go to, useful equipment, different practices/techniques).

    Do you plan on incorporating your research findings into classroom material?

    Two of the courses that I teach are research methods courses (one for graduate students and one for undergraduate students). I try to use research experiences in my teaching to demonstrate different approaches for investigating and understanding social phenomena. I think that my current research will provide examples of different approaches (both qualitative and quantitative) and techniques for data collection and analysis. It is not uncommon to run into the unexpected in research… providing ‘real world’ examples and examples from Alberta helps to convey the challenges of research; demonstrating how challenges were addressed is useful and necessary for understanding what research is and what researchers do.

    What has been your most proud and/or significant moment as a researcher?

    I have been lucky to have been involved in many research projects that have had practical application. My research has directly informed national standards for sustainable forest management, provincial conservation policy in British Columbia, and has helped communities to plan and manage outdoor recreation opportunities for their residents. A current research project of mine will serve to inform the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, an international partnership between Canada, Mexico, and the United States to conserve waterfowl and migratory birds. This partnership has recently recognized the importance of incorporating the human dimension into the planning and management of waterfowl, migratory birds, and the habitats that they depend on. This recognition poses several interesting research (and management) questions, including: what direct contributions to conservation do recreationists make through their participation in hunting and bird watching, and what can be done to support and maximize these contributions? In addition to understanding how and why people make these contributions, we are also exploring the eects that these recreation experiences have on hunters’ and bird watchers’ attitudes about the environment and their conservation-related behaviours.

     Do you have an advice for current PhD students on how to achieve a career in the academic/research-field?

    I think that it is critical to collaborate with others. Throughout the course of my graduate studies, I had opportunities to work with researchers (and practitioners) in other fields and disciplines — it involved some give and take. Many of the research projects that I was involved with needed a social scientist to investigate the human dimensions of a natural resource issue, from the use of genomics to improve tree breeding, to understanding perspectives about climate change in the areas of forestry and oil & gas development, and uncovering indigenous and non-indigenous perspectives of how forestry might mitigate local impacts of climate change. Many of these issues were new to me, but I realized that these issues could impact how people interact with nature and natural resources. But there was a quid quo pro: in addition to investigating the social questions that these projects raised, I collected data about outdoor recreation participation and preferences; this allowed me to explore the role that outdoor recreation plays in shaping people’s attitudes and perspectives about natural resource issues. I also jumped at opportunities to teach. These collaborations and teaching opportunities meant that I took longer to complete my graduate studies; but when I graduated, I was able to demonstrate depth in my understanding and expertise in the human dimensions of natural resources.

    Are you supervising any Graduate or Undergraduate students at the moment?

    I am currently supervising three PhD students and 1 MA student. I am not formally supervising any undergraduate students at the moment, but I do advise many undergraduate students from across campus through my responsibilities as a Certificate Authority for UofA’s Certificate in Sustainability.

     Is there anything you’d like to add?

    Outdoor recreation serves an important purpose: it provides opportunities for people to interact with nature. Outdoor recreation activities act like windows to the environment, and facilitate experiences in nature. Most people do not work in nature-related professions — outdoor recreation becomes the lens through which people interact with, and understand nature. I believe that without outdoor recreation, nature can become an abstract notion that is experienced vicariously through screens and books. An implication of this could be that people’s connections to nature weaken and we begin to lose a constituency for nature. Should this happen, threats to many of the ecosystem services that humans depend on (e.g., climate regulation, nutrient cycling, clean water) could worsen. What excites me about my new SSHRC research is the opportunity to better understand the environmental and social relationships that outdoor recreation opportunities facilitate.