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Human relationships with wilderness: The fundamental definition of wilderness character

Posted date: July 19, 2006
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Miscellaneous Publication
Source: International Journal of Wilderness. 10(3): 4-7


The science that has guided wilderness management thus far is not really very old. It couldn’t be. Wilderness legislation has guided U.S. federal agency managers since 1964. My own introduction to wilderness research was when I stumbled onto a series of debate articles by some of the few people engaged in early wilderness research during my freshman year of college in the mid-1970s (Hendee and Lucas 1973). What caught my attention was not the clarity or strength of the science supporting the debated topic, but just the contrary. I could easily identify with both sides of a debate for and against requirements for permits for recreational visits to wilderness. The lack of a clear, easy-to-defend solution to the dilemma these scientists described evaded both positions, yet the arguments both for and against were highly emotional ones. The "character" of wilderness, it was clear to my young mind, was something very different to different people (see Figure 1).

The basic element that excited me about this debate was the weighing of structure, articulation of protection benefits, and control associated with permits against spontaneity, freedom, and uncertainty. Whereas both sides of the argument clearly placed great importance on wilderness character, there was disagreement on how it should be protected. At the time, I assumed that 30 years or so into the future, this debate would be settled. It isn't. Today we still are in great disagreement-not over the value of wilderness character, but on how to protect it in wilderness. Rather than be disappointed about that, maybe we should celebrate it.


Watson, Alan E. 2004.Human relationships with wilderness: The fundamental definition of wilderness character. International Journal of Wilderness. 10(3): 4-7