Jeff Marion, a recreation ecologist internationally recognized for his efforts to protect and preserve public lands through the “Leave No Trace” movement, has earned the U.S. Department of Interior’s highest honor for distinguished service.

Marion is an adjunct professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. He is widely recognized as a founding contributor to the field of recreational ecology, which examines the effects of recreation on protected area ecosystems and wildlife.

Marion is also a recreation ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Eastern Ecological Science Center and is the first and only recreation ecologist to work for the U.S. Department of Interior. He was recognized for his life’s work on Sept. 8 in Washington, D.C., where Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland presented him with the agency’s Distinguished Service Award.

: Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland stands next to Jeff Marion, who holds an award certificate.
Jeff Marion (at right) was presented with his award by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (to Marion’s left) in a ceremony on Sept. 8 in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Jeff Marion.

“Dr. Jeffrey L. Marion is recognized throughout the U.S. Geological Survey for his decades of leadership and support in recreation ecology,” Haaland said. “During the past 30 years, he has traversed and studied North America's most notable national parks and forests, national trail systems, and wilderness areas in efforts to improve the sustainable management of these fragile, dynamic systems. Dr. Marion forged an understanding of how America's love for the outdoors can alter federal trust resources and how the public can assist in maintaining the integrity of parks and protected areas for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Over his 38-year career, Marion has researched the impact of millions of visitors on America’s parks, forests, and wildlife refuges, and he has developed science-based management strategies that have been widely adopted by land managers worldwide. A founding member of the  Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, Marion helped guide development of the Leave No Trace principles, practices, and educational courses that serve as an international paradigm for the use and stewardship of public lands.

His 2014 book, “Leave No Trace in the Outdoors,” is a comprehensive guide used by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, recreation and conservation groups, and the general public on how to enjoy the outdoors while protecting it from visitor impacts. Proceeds from the book go to the Leave No Trace Center.

Marion grew up exploring nature in the woods, streams, and caves of Kentucky. An avid outdoor recreationist, naturalist, and Eagle Scout, he spent summers teaching backpacking and climbing skills while majoring in biology at Wittenberg University. After earning his master’s and doctorate in recreation resources management from the University of Minnesota, Marion began his career as a National Park Service research biologist in 1985.

He moved to Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources in 1989 to establish a Cooperative Park Studies Unit. In 1997, when National Park Service scientists were transferred to the U.S. Geological Survey, Marion remained based at Virginia Tech to continue his recreational ecology research and teaching.

At Virginia Tech, Marion has led and mentored graduate students in numerous research projects to help federal agencies increase the sustainable management of public lands. In recent years, he has collaborated on efforts to investigate the impacts of camping along the Pacific Crest Trail and the development of sustainable camping management best practices, create scientific guidance for sustainably managing the impacts of ultramarathons across national parks and forests in several states, and assess the sustainability of the Appalachian Trail and its many camp and recreation sites.

“After a single year as a college professor, the National Park Service hired me into a scientific career that exceeded my highest expectations and dreams,” Marion said. “I’ve literally occupied the proverbial cloud nine since that day, pursuing my passions for making outdoor recreation enjoyable and sustainable through research, consulting, and education. While some have labeled me a ‘workaholic,’ it’s truly been a labor of love. I’ve immensely enjoyed my job, particularly the pursuit of knowledge and collaborations with colleagues, students, agency managers, volunteer stewards, and the Leave No Trace community of educators.”

Marion plans to retire at the end of 2023 after completing a book on the science of sustainable trail and camping management that he plans to post for free on the internet and helping his final group of graduate students begin careers as the next generation of recreation ecologists.

“I’ve been the Department of the Interior’s first and only recreation ecology scientist, and to be recognized at the end of my career with their highest award is an honor I’ll always cherish,” he said. “As visitation to our nation’s protected areas continues to grow, there is a new and growing field of study that will provide the science needed to ensure the continued preservation and enjoyment of our nation’s irreplaceable parks, forests, preserves, and wilderness.”

“Jeff Marion is world renowned as a scientist and leader for his work in backcountry visitor impacts, and he has had a remarkable career putting his science into the hands of on-the-ground land managers,” said Jay Sullivan, head of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “As a stalwart advocate and pioneer in the successful Leave No Trace program that seeks to minimize visitor impacts on the environment, he has made an enormous difference across many landscapes and ecosystems. He loves the outdoors, and he loves to share those experiences and his vast knowledge with any who will join him.”

“Jeff Marion has made a difference throughout his career and has pioneered an entire field of study,” said Paul Winistorfer, dean of the college. “We have benefitted tremendously by Jeff’s presence in the college and through his work. This recognition by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of the Interior bestows on Jeff tremendous honor, recognition, and acknowledgement for decades of outstanding, pioneering, and impactful work. We are all very proud of Jeff for receiving this honor.”

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