Director Archive


Apr 1, 2017

Tom Ortmeyer

I recently came across the paper “The Evolution of Wilderness Social Science and Future Research to Protect Experiences, Resources, and Societal Benefits,” published last year in the Journal of Forestry, by authors from the Aldo Leopold Research Institute, Rocky Mountain Research Station, University of Vermont and Humboldt State University. The primary focus of the paper is on the development of wilderness social science as a discipline, and tracking this back to federal government’s passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Despite the differing origins of this federal law, the paper contains a number interesting perspectives relating to our wilderness areas in New York, whose foundations date back to the Forever Wild clause of the New York constitution in 1895.

The paper describes the wilderness management disciplines’s initial focus on providing a wilderness experience to the humans visiting the wilderness. A key aspect of the wilderness experience has long been seen as the ability to find opportunities for solitude as well as for stewardship of the lands. As could be expected, wilderness scientists began to gather data on wilderness use and management. With time, concepts of carrying capacity of a wilderness area, and issues involving usage management emerged. More recently, efforts began to investigate the value of wilderness to all of society, not just those who visit the wilderness. These studies have shown that the general public values wilderness for protection of air and water quality, providing wildlife habitat, and protecting it for future generations.

Certainly, a success of wilderness social science is the development of a solid understanding of the value of wilderness to our society. A deep understanding of the multiple benefits of wilderness to our society is critical when we face issues involving the protection of our wilderness areas as well as our need to add to our protected wilderness as appropriate.

Wilderness science to date has provided significant knowledge on impacts of wilderness recreation, quality standards for wilderness, and wilderness management theory. These in turn provide a basic background for us to address the new challenges that face our wilderness areas. The paper discusses the following four challenges, and I suspect many of us will be able to relate to these.

Addressing Climate Change First on this important issue is that monitoring of wilderness areas can provide information in the impacts of climate change. However, measuring these impacts will often mean more monitoring of the wilderness, and more people in the wilderness to do the monitoring. How should this be balanced in wilderness areas already seeing stresses from other directions? The second basic issue is when, if ever, management strategies should be used to counteract changes associated with climate change—such as changes in water resources or species newly coming into an area due to habitat expansion, and conflicting with established (and perhaps at risk) species. This alone will be a very difficult issue in our established wilderness areas.

Wilderness Restoration In a 2014 survey, wilderness managers cited this issue as having one of the biggest needs for more understanding of public attitudes on the topic. The most research cited in this area is on fire impacts. However, this is generally not the top priority for us in the Adirondacks. Certainly, a big issue here is the impacts of invasive species. In recent years, we have seen the development of programs to combat invasives throughout the Adirondacks (and not just in wilderness areas), and the indications that I have seen are that public opinion on these programs is strongly positive. Another issue that we sometimes see is the question of when and under what conditions is it appropriate to give up small bits of wilderness for other usage in exchange for new lands that would enter the wilderness.

Role of New Technology in Wilderness I know you are all thinking of cells phones, but there are other issues as well. Better and lighter gear can mean increased accessibility to wilderness. And yes, the cell phones, GPS devices, and other electronics can have both advantages and disadvantages. This can lead to wilderness visitors feeling safer, which could results in some doing riskier things with less experience than has been the case. The second aspect of technology is that it can in some cases provide better information faster and less intrusively than has been the case in the past— for example, the use of drones to gather data.

Appropriate use of technology is a critical issue. I believe that there is a need for education in this area— to develop and publicize the best practices for continuous development of wilderness skills while maintaining safe practices.

Expanded Relevance of Wilderness This is perhaps the biggest and broadest issue. In this increasingly complex world, there are many issues competing for everyone’s attention. These same issues create an increasing need for the protection of the wilderness for clean water and air, wildlife corridors, sustainable groundwater resources, as well as its value to society and those of us who are privileged to visit these important areas. Our ability to identify and publicize the many benefits of our wilderness areas will be a key to addressing threats to our wilderness areas as they arise.