U.S. Department of Agriculture: Forest Service -- National Agroforestry Center


Date of this Version



Published in Weber, Samantha, and David Harmon, eds. 2008


Wilderness managers must balance providing access for wilderness recreation with protecting the special experiences wilderness provides. This balancing act is particularly challenging at popular destinations close to large metropolitan areas. Such destinations provide substantial societal benefits by allowing respite from city life and immersion in natural environments for thousands; however, the thousands that throng to these places detract from the wildness and sense of solitude that wilderness should provide. Managers are left wondering what sorts of experiences are appropriate in such places or, more precisely, what experiences are so inappropriate that restrictive actions should be taken to avoid them. Particularly contentious are decisions about whether or not to deny access to people who want to visit—limiting use in order to protect experiences. This is not a new issue. But it is an issue that is increasingly pervasive, particularly in regions such as the United States’ Pacific Northwest where large populations of outdoor-oriented people live immediately adjacent to spectacular wilderness areas. Consequently, we conducted studies of visitors to Forest Service wilderness areas of Oregon and Washington. From previous research, we have learned lots about people’s evaluations of experiences (for example, Manning 1999). How crowded does this place feel? How satisfied were you with your experience? Is this or that a problem? And we have learned lots about peoples’ management preferences. Do you support use limits? Should dogs be prohibited? But in exploring such questions, apparent inconsistencies have emerged. Despite apparent social impacts, experience evaluations usually remain positive and behavioral responses to impacts suggest that they are considered trivial. This suggests the need to better understand what people actually experience.