Education & Communication

December 2016 | Volume 22, Number 3


Every summer, hundreds of wilderness rangers, resource specialists, trail crew workers, firefighters, and river rangers immerse themselves in wilderness and carry out the details of wilderness management.

Like all systems managed by large entities, the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) reaps the benefits of coordinated resources while bearing the consequences of varied decision making. Addressing management variation occurs in two ways – either through the creation of policy, or the broad education of individual managers and workers. Managing a vast resource such as the NWPS requires some variation in application; all wilderness areas, and the communities they interact with, are unique. As such, policy cannot always be the answer. There must be some autonomy allowed to wilderness decision makers, both to meet local needs and to be responsive to issues in the way policy and bureaucracy cannot. This is where education comes in, and within the wilderness and natural resource sector, there are vast educational resources, from academia to Wilderness Ranger Academies to continuing education for managers. You can learn how to pack a pack, work with stock, interpret the Wilderness Act, administer wilderness first aid, manage visitor use, employ minimum requirement analysis, manage recreation, and to apply philosophy, ecology, and planning to wilderness management issues. However, there is one very important field that is not well represented in the wide range of wilderness education – psychology.

Wilderness management is incredibly dynamic, both ecologically and humanistically. The human side of managerial decision making is a complex web, with decision makers at every level engaging with coworkers, staff, and supervisors; other agencies; partner groups; and local, regional, national, and international communities. Understanding the psychological aspects of how communities interact with wilderness is becoming increasingly important as our political polarity and social unrest can play out on public lands. Wilderness has no shortage of controversial issues. Consider the issues of fire management and filming in wilderness.

In 2013, Paul Barrett wrote an opinion piece for the Fairfield (Montana) Sun Times about the management of wilderness fires. He starts the article this way:

I question the decisions by the Lewis and Clark National Forest to continually let fires burn in the wilderness. The fires are let go early in the season in July and massive areas are burned and re-burned over the years. I disagree that there is a great resource benefit to this. By the end of the season, the fires have destroyed too much of our cool forest landscapes. In the past these early let burn fires such as the 1988 Canyon fire and the 2007 Fool Creek Fire have escaped out of the wilderness and forced numerous evacuations and even destroyed developed areas. (Barrett 2013)

In another example discussing the then-proposed US Forest Service wilderness filming rule, Zach Urness of the Statesman Journal (Salem, Oregon) said: “Far more troubling is the prospect of journalists being denied access to a wilderness area because a government agency didn’t approve of a story area … the government can’t determine what’s news and not news – it’s a pretty clear violation of the First Amendment” (Urness 2014).

From the first congressional committee meetings on the proposed Wilderness Act, wilderness has been controversial. It will continue to be. And as happens with controversial issues, discussions and opinions circle in interest groups so that by the time individuals interact with land managers, they are not necessarily open to different ideas or new information, no matter how nonpartisan or educational they may be. Wilderness managers need a new tool in their arsenal to break down the barriers of preconceived notions, geographic and social norms, and ideological hostility. The disciplines within psychology offer enhanced insight into facilitating discussions internally and externally, so that wilderness management decisions can be made to better steward wilderness areas.

For example, understanding psychological climates can be key to understanding wilderness interest groups because all interests can share many of the same values – such as utilization of public lands, personal wellness, and community support. Opposition arises because of how given values are prioritized, with opposition increasing as opposing prioritization multiplies. Where one person sees ecological health as the most salient value, another sees community prosperity as the most salient. They may then disagree even on whether or not facts are valid, important, or reliable. And they disagree on the likelihood of a given outcome (Tuan 1974).

Recently retired Bitterroot National Forest district ranger Dan Ritter said it best when he described his job to the Missoulian newspaper in Missoula, Montana: “You are working with people 95% of the time and in the other 5% you make management decisions. I always say, give me an easy resource manage-ment issue to deal with any time. Paint that picnic table tan or red? That’s easy. The truth of it is that there are few decisions that you make that don’t require working with the public.”

Inclusion of psychological discipline and concepts in wilderness education may be furthered by curriculum development within upper level collegiate courses and wilderness staff training courses that investigate the various disciplines of psychology and offer application tools for wilderness students and managers. Such courses could and should provide basic information on developmental, eco, social, behavioral, and cognitive psychology; look at the primary tools of anticipating and analyzing public behavior around wilderness and natural resources (e.g., utilizing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; the Theory of Planned Behavior; attunements, affordances and effectivities; primary motivations; social norms, the perceptions of risk and control); and engage participants in applying those concepts to real-world wilder-ness management issues.

In order to better foresee and understand public opinion on, and interaction with, wilderness areas, and the impact those actions have on wilderness managers, psychological disciplines should be directly integrated into all levels of wilderness education.

HEATHER MACSLARROW is executive director of the Society for Wilderness Stewardship; email: h.macslarrow@


Barrett, P. 2013. “Let it burn” USFS policy poses threat to irrigation. Fairfield (MT) Sun Times.

Tuan, Y. F. 1974. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Urness. Z. 2014. Feds want to restrict filming in wilderness areas. Statesman Journal (Salem, OR). Retrieved from http://www.statesmanjournal. com/story/news/local/2014/09/24/feds-want-restrict-filming-wilderness-areas/16138087/ on April 1, 2016.