Jeff Marion has built a career around a lifelong passion for the outdoors, and that effort has culminated in his being selected as the co-recipient of the George Wright Society’s Natural Resources Achievement Award for 2019. The award seeks to recognize excellence in research, management, and education related to parks and protected areas.

Marion, a recreational ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and an adjunct professor in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and the Environment, is a founding contributor to the field of recreation ecology, which develops and applies ecological knowledge to examine and limit the environmental impacts caused by recreational use of park and forest lands.

“The land management agencies have a dual mandate that directs them to both protect natural resource conditions and processes, and to accommodate appropriate recreational activities in protected areas,” Marion explained. “By understanding and modeling the effects of that use, recreation ecologists can work with land managers to direct activities and interventions that will maintain the sustainability of that use.”

Marion’s passion for the outdoors started at a young age. Growing up exploring the woods and streams of Kentucky, he and his three brothers all achieved Eagle Scout status, and he was a staff member for the Boy Scout’s Philmont Scout Ranch, a high adventure base in New Mexico. These experiences led him to pursue studies in biology and natural resource management.

His “lightbulb moment” came while he was a master’s student in the environmental management program at Duke University.

“I came across a paper on wilderness management research, and there was a part that examined the literature on resource impacts from wilderness recreation,” Marion recalled. “I took it to my advisor, and he suggested I do an independent study on visitor impacts to wilderness. There was some literature on it, but the field wasn’t really developed at the time.”

Marion transferred to the University of Minnesota to pursue this new topic, where he received his master’s and doctorate. This decision allowed him to develop research methodologies that would give the field of recreation ecology a foothold in the wider areas of environmental conservation and natural resources management. He has published numerous papers in leading peer review journals and helped to develop and expand land conservation principles that have significantly reduced human impacts on remote environments.

Marion has been involved in the nonprofit organization Leave No Trace since its founding, and he authored the organization’s 2014 book “Leave No Trace in the Outdoors.” Since 1989 Marion has led the Virginia Tech Field Station of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. His expertise in recreation ecology has led to him collaborating with leading scientists in China to develop management and preservation policies for forest ecosystems across the world.

In 2014 Marion returned to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, to re-measure soil and vegetation impacts on campsites he had previously researched while doing his doctorate in 1982. Marion and colleague Jeremy Wimpey, who earned his doctorate at Virginia Tech in 2009, are currently completing a study to characterize and reduce the impacts of hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and have initiated a similar multi-year study of camping impacts on the Pacific Crest Trail.

For Marion, a faculty member in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation since 1989, the George Wright Society Natural Resources Achievement Award honors a career that hasn’t ever felt like work.

“Outdoor activities are my passion, and I followed that passion,” he said. “I was fortunate to find a way to combine my outdoor interests with my academic and professional ambitions, and it’s never felt like I work for a living. I really enjoy what I do, and I can’t believe that I get paid to do what I love.”

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