In the discussion of scientific instruments and measuring devices, there are two major categories: active sensors and passive sensors. Active sensors use some kind of directed energy, whether that be light waves, sound waves or kinetic means to measure properties about an item. Passive sensors do not emit any energy, but measure the observed item's own emitted energy, again, light waves, sound waves or kinetic means to measure properties of that item.
Some types of instruments can be in either passive or active types. Microscopes can be passively viewing or, like an electron microscope, they can actively view. Sonar on ships and submarines can do the same, passively listening for other vessels or sending out a “ping” to listen for the echo.
But when talking about active or passive recreational uses, what is being referred to? How can one activity be referred to as “active use” and a seemingly similar activity be referred to as “passive use”. How does this understanding of active and passive recreational use affect mountain biking in urban areas?
The first thing that must be understood is that there is not a nationally accepted definition for active and passive recreation uses within the various states and municipalities thereof. This means for your local city or area, there might be some slight differences.
Here is the definition (in whole) from a legal dictionary about what is passive use:
A passive recreation area is generally an undeveloped space or environmentally sensitive area that requires minimal development. Entities such as a parks department may maintain passive recreation areas for the health and well-being of the public and for the preservation of wildlife and the environment. The quality of the environment and "naturalness" of an area is the focus of the recreational experience in a passive recreation area.
As you can see, there is squish in this definition. In fact, it uses a broad definition that one community has to illustrate exactly how large that passive recreational use umbrella could get. It doesn’t mean every community has a definition that broad, it just means that definitions can be that broad.
If the states and cities of America do not have a specific definition of active and passive uses, does the federal government? Yes, it does, but in an unlikely location: within the definitions of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
First, why would the EPA want or need to define active and passive recreational uses? Aren’t they supposed to make sure that companies are dumping chemicals in the ground.? While preventing pollution is part of their mandate, another part of their mandate is clean up pollution and sites of contamination. Some sites of pollution or contamination may not be fit for human habitation and therefore may, over time, become wild again as Mother Nature reclaims the land. Differing contaminants might bring different risk factors to humans based on what activities occur there after a site is cleaned up. As an example, lead contamination in soil can be a problem as the lead is often spread via dust and therefore can affect large areas. Clearly any type of recreational use on a previously contaminated piece of land with lead would have to factor in the dust from soil as a contamination vector and that might limit recreational use. Conversely, many chemicals, especially petroleum products, can be left in situ without risk of contamination unless they are disturbed or if they have vapor pathways. For these areas, forests with trails would present no health risk, but a football field, with its massive grassed area acting as a vent, would.
So, the EPA’s need for a definition comes from understanding the relative impacts to humans that may engage in activities on lands that may be impacted by various previous human uses or human contamination.
That brings us to the second part of this: what are the EPA’s definitions for active and passive use?
The EPA defines passive recreational use as:
Passive recreation refers to recreational activities that do not require prepared facilities like sports fields or pavilions. Passive recreational activities place minimal stress on a site’s resources; as a result, they can provide ecosystem service benefits and are highly compatible with natural resource protection.
They then include activities that would qualify as passive use under this definition:
For active recreational use, the EPA defines them as such:
Active recreation refers to a structured individual or team activity that requires the use of special facilities, courses, fields, or equipment.
Depending on the particular scope of the document from the EPA, the list of active uses can get long, but the shorter version of the list looks like this:
Essentially, the EPA is giving a similar definition as the legal definition above, with two further points of emphasis: 1) passive uses can’t require prepared (and maintenance intensive) facilities and 2) passive uses are relatively low impact to the site’s resources.
It should be noted here that the EPA include bicycling as a passive use. This would include mountain biking as several case studies that are highlight by the EPA include several locations that are now used for mountain biking, including the Kickapoo State Recreation Area, just outside Danville, Illinois.
The thing about the EPA definition is that it is really rigid. There would be all sorts of actives and uses that would conceivable be labeled as active or passive that may float between the two depending on circumstances. Its best to think of the EPA definition as being a 90% definition. That is, 90% of the time, its golden. The other 10% of the time, there is some deep conversations that have to happen.
Is there a shortcut to understanding the difference?
If there lots of leeway in local definitions and a far less leeway with the federal definition thru the EPA, then is there a way to discuss a use in such a way so as to determine whether its active or passive use that gets us to an answer?
Generally, these are considered the 3 main tests of a recreational use to determine if it is passive or active:
It should become clear that what makes an activity active or passive isn’t so much the activity itself, but two major factors together: 1) infrastructure, that construction impacts and 2) the impacts of that activity post-construction. Going back to the 3 main tests of a recreational use, we see this see-saw between, and the balancing of, the infrastructure and usage impacts. When we start applying that to the items in the table above, we can see how impacts at the time of construction for an active or passive use might be the same, but as time passes, the low impact of the passive use prevents further impacts, thereby allowing the total impacts to be relatively low.
Simple comparison of infrastructure
Let’s discuss the infrastructure for two uses (we will get to activities later), side by side, to see how this plays out with real uses than might occur in an urban area. The first use will be a football field and the second will be trail system. At this point, let’s not define who will use that trail as that gets into activities, let’s assume it’s a multi-use trail.
Clearly, there are some places where it’s no contest, the trail has much lower impacts than the football field. Yet, in other areas, it’s not so clear. Where the trail makes up for its initial construction impacts is its low long-term impacts. Even then, it will never be 100% free of impacts, that is, until humans stop using the trail and it is fully reclaimed.
This is where it gets interesting
Obviously, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a trail system would have less impact than a football field. Yet, what about the different uses that could occur on that trail? Are all activities on that trail thereby passive? And how does this effect mountain biking?
That will be the discussion in Part 2.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.