NMU offers new online outdoor recreation degree

The Upper Peninsula is known for its bounty of outdoor recreational activities.

Outdoor pursuits range from snowmobiling, downhill and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and ice fishing during frosty winters to kayaking, swimming, boating, hiking and fishing in the warmer months.

Tapping into this wealth of outdoor activities is Northern Michigan University’s newly launched online master of science program, appropriately titled Administration of Outdoor Recreation and Nature-Based Tourism.

The program is aimed at people who would like to work at an administrative level in the field of recreation, outdoor recreation, and nature-based tourism. 

The U.P. economy is a rural one and one that is growing to depend on outdoor
recreation tourism. The program’s coursework “prepares students to face issues that are prevalent here,” said Scott Jordan, a professor and program director. Topics include how to start and manage a business focused on outdoor recreation and its related issues.

How it began: The idea for the program began 10 years ago when Jordan and his colleague, Jacquie Medina, agreed there was a need for this master’s program. They were joined by a third faculty member, Ryan Hines, in 2017.

Northern Michigan University in Marquette.“This coincided with a boom of outdoor recreation tourism in the Upper Peninsula and throughout the United States.  The three of us saw an opportunity to develop a degree that could focus on a sustainable model for the outdoor recreation economy. Our dean, Dale Kapla (now provost) and Associate Dean Liz Wuorenin encouraged us to propose the degree, a two year-process ending with approval by the NMU Board of Trustees in December 2021,” Jordan said.

The target students: Prospective students in a variety of fields could use the degree to advance their careers. Those fields include the National Park Service, National Forest Service, federal, state or community recreation or land management agencies, nonprofit organizations like the YMCA or Scouts, and private-sector recreation tourism owners and managers. The program could also benefit prospective students who wish to enter those fields. 

About the program: The degree is a 34-credit program designed to be completed in four semesters. However, many of its students work full time and may take more time. The program’s first class of five students will graduate in May 2024.

Studies include the effects of the field on the natural environment, the economy, and the cultural aspects of rural environments. Required courses include "History & Philosophy of Leisure," and "Sustainability in Outdoor Recreation."

“In our Current Issues course, we discuss areas of economic leakage from rural economies caused by this industry.  Here’s one such instance: If we continue to have a seasonal employment model for the industry, money will leave the local economy when workers have to leave. There are solutions to this problem. This shows how topics we cover relate directly to the U.P.,” Jordan said.

The program was initially planned to be offered on-campus but later changed to an
online one based on Kapla's recommendation. “He recognized that the content of this degree would be attractive to professionals throughout the country who could continue working while they completed this degree,” Jordan said.

Campus visit: A one-week visit, Seminar in Outdoor Recreation, is required on the NMU campus each year. This connects students to the campus, where they can discuss and present their research, and visit the local outdoor recreation economy. Speakers are brought to the campus from around the country. “This was our first year to have the seminar and it was a resounding success, attracting 60 people to our final event," Jordan said.

Classes were planned to meet the requirements for a standard master’s degree in the fields of recreation or leisure. The practical aspects of the fields of outdoor recreation and nature-based tourism provide a unique aspect.

For example, the course, "Sustainability in Outdoor Recreation," concentrates on the impacts of the field and encourages students to think about ways to decrease impact by focusing on cultural, economic, and environmental issues. A "Current Issues" course covers content on diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as the effects of adaptations to climate change on the field of sustainable outdoor recreation tourism.

“The UP is a perfect place to present these issues but the topics covered in classes are transferable to anywhere in the world. The degree was designed to advance students’ careers in the field but we are accepting students from a variety of backgrounds including business, environmental studies and political sciences. We hope that this degree will attract entrepreneurs, community planners and recreation workers.

Sustainability: “An emphasis of the program is the importance of outdoor sustainability in the U.P., especially its trails and parks and the solitude they provide. This is why there needs to be a degree that focuses on sustaining these things. The problem with trails, parks and solitude is that people don't need to pay for them. They are non-tangible assets, which does not work well with our current economic model. We have to protect these assets through cultural values and education.

“The organization, Travel Marquette, has made impressive steps towards understanding the value of attracting visitors while not overwhelming our environment and the local culture,” he said.

Travel Marquette and Visit Keweenaw have adopted Leave No Trace principles to educate people about protecting the environment while they visit national, state and local recreation areas. 

For information on the program, contact Scott Jordan at scjordan@nmu.edu.

Ann Dallman has lifelong roots in Michigan’s UP. She started out as a newspaper reporter/photographer and returned to journalism after retiring from teaching. Her first Middle Grade novel, Cady and the Bear Necklace, received a State History Award (Books/Youth) from the Historical Society of Michigan as well as a Midwest Book Award, New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, was a Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist and a UP Notable Book. Her second book, Cady and the Birchbark Box, also received the Historical Society of Michigan State Award and is also a UP Notable Book.
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