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The evolution of wilderness social science and future research to protect experiences, resources, and societal benefits


H. Ken Cordell
Robert Manning
Steven Martin



Publication type:

Scientific Journal (JRNL)

Primary Station(s):

Rocky Mountain Research Station


Journal of Forestry. 114(3): 329-338.


The historic Wilderness Act celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014, and wilderness social science shared a similar legacy. As paradoxical as it might seem, humans are an important part of wilderness, helping to define the very concept and representing an important component of wilderness use and management. Much of the past five decades of wilderness-related social science has focused on recreational use, documenting the impacts of recreation on wilderness resources and the quality of the wilderness experience, exploring application of the concept of recreational carrying capacity to wilderness, and developing planning and management frameworks for balancing the inherent tension between wilderness use and protecting the quality of wilderness resources and the experience of visiting wilderness. The Limits of Acceptable Change and related planning frameworks, including formulation of recreation-related indicators and standards, continues to help guide wilderness management today. Other programs of social science research have developed protocols for measuring and monitoring wilderness recreation, defined the root causes of conflict among wilderness users and identified management approaches to minimize this conflict, explored the appropriate and acceptable use of fees for wilderness use, and identified a growing suite of wilderness values. All of these programs of research and others that could not be included in this review article have helped guide wilderness management and policy. However, social science research has evolved as a function of changes in both wilderness and society. This evolution continues through a focus on public attitudes toward adaptation to climate change, public attitudes toward restoration in wilderness to correct past human intervention, appropriate use of technology in wilderness, and issues related to the relevance of wilderness in light of changes in society and use of public lands. This article tells the story of these changes in issues and the relationship between wilderness and the American people.


Watson, Alan E.; Cordell, H. Ken; Manning, Robert; Martin, Steven. 2016. The evolution of wilderness social science and future research to protect experiences, resources, and societal benefits. Journal of Forestry. 114(3): 329-338.


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