Findings of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute and Cooperators

Science & Research

April 2016 | Volume 22, Number 1


Planning was in high gear in 2013 as the wilderness community prepared for a wide variety of events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The most important event was the National Wilderness Conference held in October in New Mexico. The centerpiece of this conference was the signing of a new strategic plan, 2020 Vision: Interagency Stewardship Priorities for America’s National Wilderness Preservation System, by the heads of all the US wilderness land management agencies. Since the signing of 2020 Vision, the agencies have been hard at work developing an implementation strategy and performance measures that will ensure goals are met. Science is a critical component of 2020 Vision.

The wilderness science community is contributing to the strategic and implementation planning through a number of steps: (1) identifying the information, science, and training needs of managers (Dawson et al. 2016); (2) developing peer-reviewed papers on the summarizing what we have learned about wilderness science; and (3) completing a science plan that identifies the highest priority research needed by stewards of the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). The decision was made to provide a state of wilderness science by publishing a series of articles in two journals. The first series of science summary papers was published in International Journal of Wilderness in August 2014 in time for the 50th anniversary. The second series were published in a special issue of the Journal of Forestry (JoF) dedicated to wilderness science. The JoF was chosen because it is the most widely circulated scholarly forestry journal in the world, with more 12,000 printed copies distributed and available online to thousands of others via institutional, agency, and business subscriptions. In print since 1902, the mission of the JoF is to advance the profession of forestry by keeping forest management professionals informed about significant developments and ideas in the many facets of forestry. Wilderness in the United States encompasses many more land-cover types than just forests – deserts, grasslands, tundra, rocky mountainscapes – and JoF was chosen because of its excellent reputation as a high-quality publication and its broad distribution.

This issue of JoF, simply titled Wilderness Science, was published in March 2016. It includes 14 papers and 2 case studies by 55 authors. First is an overview of the NWPS to educate readers that may not be familiar with the federal wilderness system in the United States. It is followed by an important paper discussing the challenges facing wilderness management agencies and the managers of these lands with potential solutions offered. The third paper begins the science focus, providing a review of the evolution of wilderness research, identifying the challenges of integrating wilderness science and stewardship, considering catalysts for increasing the science conducted, and ending with a compelling argument for the development of a cohesive wilderness science strategy to address NWPS management needs.

The next eight papers provide comprehensive synopses for a variety of research topics, including social science, recreation ecology research specific to carrying capacity, recreation ecology research relevant to recreation experiences, economic values of wilderness, fire science, a framework for the challenging topic of wildlife research, an evaluation of how much manipulation and intervention is appropriate, presentation of a soundscape assessment frame-work, an evaluation of how diverse the ecosystems are in the national system, and finally a “think piece” on how we can maintain the relevance of the wilderness system in a rapidly changing society.

Of the two cases studies, one looks back and one looks forward. The case study on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness provides an overview of how science has helped managers over the past four decades. The case study on Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) Lost Coast of California looks to future challenges managers will face with the development and deployment of new technology, including social media, drones, motorized paragliders, and personal locator beacons.

In addition to the 14 papers and 2 case studies, there are 4 short pieces that provide photos with captions that tell stories. These highlight a variety of topics that might surprise readers not familiar with wilderness, such as how the BLM met the challenges of excavating a dinosaur skeleton in Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in New Mexico. Another photo shows how wilderness character can be greatly enhanced by river restoration, using the example of the dams removed on the National Park Service–managed Elwha River in Olympic Wilderness, Washington. The important role fire science has played in supporting mangers’ reestablishment of natural fire regimes is highlighted to show how research in wilderness can have a major impact on national fire policy on all lands. And, finally, a photo of Lyndon Baines Johnson signing the Wilderness Act into law on September 3, 1964 is presented in celebration of this important event.

Thus, the March 2016 Journal of Forestry Wilderness Science issue is a key foundation document, together with the wilderness manager survey and the August 2014 International Journal of Wilderness issue, for the development of a new science strategy for wilderness in the United States.

SUSAN FOX is director of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute in Missoula, MT; email:

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Dawson, C. P., H. K. Cordell, A. Watson, R. Ghimire, and G. T. Green. 2016. The US wilderness manager survey: Charting a path for the future. Journal of Forestry (March): xx–xx.

Fox, Susan, Chelsea Phillippe, Vicky Hoover, and Lee Lambert. 2014 Creating the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act: The National Wilderness Conference Proceedings, Albuquerque, New Mexico, retrieved from Conference_Proceedings_2014.pdf.

Various authors. 2016. Journal of Forestry (March), retrieved from https://www. (Please note only the papers by federal employees are available via open access; papers by others require a subscription.)