Soul of the Wilderness

August 2015 | Volume 21, Number 2


This article is adapted from an essay originally posted in the author’s blog, The Pasque Flower (

Protecting the character of wilderness and providing access to this heritage of national importance for visitors to view, enjoy, learn, and appreciate are among the most significant challenges facing stewards as they enter the second 50 years of wilderness. The federal wilderness stewardship agencies have articulated a vision of their goals and responsibilities in 2020 Vision (2020 Vision 2014), including one to “reinvigorate commitment to wilderness stewardship” and another to “build workforce capacity and wilderness program resources.” The latter includes developing “workforce capacity plans that identify the right mix and numbers with the right skills and knowledge to preserve wilderness character.”

Staffing the agencies with stewards that provide the leadership, learning, and organizational proficiencies to achieve these goals is critical to the success of this vision.

Figure 1 – Recreational use remains an important challenge and opportunity in many wildernesses, such as the Bob Marshall, which has systematically engaged the public in monitoring and reflection since 1982. Photo by Steve McCool.

In this article, I suggest four keys to developing the capabilities of these stewards and enabling competent performance within an organizational environment subject to the many global and national level processes affecting wilderness and similar areas in the next 50 years (see Stan-key 2000) (Figure 1).

1. Thinking Critically – In the wicked and messy world of 21st-century wilderness management, learning and thinking critically are paramount. As Jon Kohl and I argue (2016), we can no longer assume that the world is predictable, linear, understandable, or stable. Rather it is dynamic, impossible to completely understand, complex, and ever-changing. An ethic of daily learning is required to address the challenges – as well as the opportunities – we encounter in this environment. We need strong critical thinking skills to assess, evaluate, and reflect on the many proposals arriving on our desks. This means we need to be a bit of a skeptic, closely scrutinizing events, from global to local, and “dive deeper” to understand what they mean and their implications. For example, by using Gunder-son and Holling’s (2002) notion of adaptive cycles in ecosystems, we see connections between society and wilderness not as static but rather as always changing in form, content, and intensity.

We build critical thinking skills through several pathways, most notably through higher education, but also through continuing education programs oriented toward creating understanding of why things occur, building frameworks to guide our thinking, and developing networks and communities of practice to test our ideas. Continuing education is generally the domain of universities and colleges because these institutions, while having handcuffs of their own, are not bound by particular wilderness agency policy and culture, are focused on uncovering truth, and often open our minds to ideas we do not see because of our organizational cultures and personal mental models. The Wilderness Distance Learning program at the University of Mon-tana and the Wilderness Stewardship Certificate Program administered by the Eppley Institute at the University of Indiana are two examples of continuing education focused on stewardship. In short, higher education infuses new perspectives and ideas into stewardship.

2. Acting Competently – We need stewards who are proficient, who understand how things work, and who propel and operate organizations in ways that are not only effective and efficient but equitable as well. Doing the right things is important, and this is probably the most valued attribute of managers and protected area staff. We need to build competency in protected area skill application just as we need our staff to think critically. We need stewards who know how to design and implement interpretative programs, enforce rules and regulations, manage visitor use with flexibility and adaptability, apply landscape level restoration, exercise creativity in securing wildlife and their habitat, and administer concession contracts, among other tasks. And while the focus here is on skill development and improvement, understanding the lessons learned from their application is important to competent wilderness stewardship (see for example the Wildlands Fire Lessons Learned Center http://www.

Skill development is the domain of training – where staff understand what and how to do things, but not necessarily why they do these things. While universities often provide training, this is properly the domain of vocational programs and agency training centers, such as the U.S. Department of the Interior National Conservation Training Center and the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center. A university may not be the best place to learn the how-tos of law enforcement or how to design and implement a field data management program, but a training center or program would be (Figure 2).

3. Deciding Confidently – Stewards must be able to make decisions that reflect themselves as self-assured and poised, that they feel good about in terms of having considered the alternatives and their consequences, about which they have interacted with constituencies and staff for a preferred course of action, and for which they have built proper monitoring and adaptive management protocols in the event their assumptions underlying the decision are proven questionable. There is often a fine line between being confident and being arrogant (say a feeling of being of superior intelligence or perception), so I mean here that decisions are made with a sense of humility.

Developing confidence requires mentoring – working jointly with more experienced and poised stew-ards to appreciate their particular approach to making decisions. In the real-world cauldron of conflict and contention, of choice and uncertainty, and of change and complexity, this sense of confidence is needed for effective leadership. Mentoring and shadowing programs within the agency itself then are needed to help potential managers to develop this sense of confident humility about their decisions. So too can a community of practice – defined by Wenger and Snyder (2002) as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (such as that being developed by the Society for Wilderness Stewardship) – aid in developing confidence in that their decisions are appropriate for the situation.

4. Empowering Environments – Stewards work within organizations, be they governmental, nongovernmental, or parastatals. Organizations have cultures, they have norms, they have expectations, they have traditions, and they have bureaucrats. Everybody has a boss with viewpoints, perspectives, and priorities. Bureaucracies are not known as systems of creativity, innovative thinking, and tolerance for new perspectives. This culture may disempower stew-ards or empower them.

Libby Khumalo and I argue (2015) that empowerment means organizations carefully manage the four types of power they wield, often unknowingly: the power over, or the ability to control people, their decisions, and behavior in order to ensure predictability and stability within an organization; the power to, or the ability of a person to pursue their own goals within the context of an agency’s vision and mission; the power with, which deals with collective power, the ability to get things done cooperatively and without formal coercion; and finally, the power within, which is an increased will for change, expressed through self-confidence, assertiveness, and awareness.

Figure 2 – Protected area managers from around the world discuss how the U.S. Forest Service interacts with communities about wilderness issues during the International Seminar on Protected Area Management, one of three such continuing education programs available for building critical thinking skills. Photo by Steve McCool.

By empowering managers, organizations encourage them to think critically, act competently, and decide confidently – in other words, to pursue the organization’s vision and mission with enthusiasm and with a focus on learning, both critically needed in the wilderness stewardship world of the 21st century.

Building the capacities needed to steward wilderness for its next 50 years requires progress on all four keys; understanding the unique role of each and attending to them within a systems context will enhance our chances of protecting one of the best things we have in our culture: respect and appreciation for natural processes, undeveloped expanses, and opportunities for common citizens to engage nature on its terms.

STEPHEN F. McCOOL is professor emeritus, University of Montana, Missoula, MT; email: stephen.


2020 Vision. 2014. 2020 Vision: Interagency Stewardship Priorities for America’s National Wilderness Preservation System. Retrieved from

Gunderson, L., and C. S. Holling, eds. 2002. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Kohl, J., and S. F. McCool. Forthcoming 2016. The Future Has Other Plans. Denver, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.

McCool, S. F., and L. Khumalo. 2015. Empowering Managers: Enhancing the Performance of Protected Area Tourism Managers in the 21st Century. Tourism Recreation Research, doi: ID.1080/02508281.2015.1039333.

Stankey, G. H. 2000. Future trends in society and technology: Implications for wilderness research and management. In Wilderness Science in a Time of Change Conference, Volume 1: Changing Perspectives and Future Directions, comp. D. N. Cole, S. F. McCool, W. A. Freimund, and J. O’Loughlin. (pp. 10-23). Proceedings-P-15-VOL-1. Ogden, UT: USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Wenger, E. C., and W. M. Snyder. 2000. Communities of practice: The organizational frontier. Harvard Business Review January–February: 139–145.