Visitor Use Management

The Visitor Use Management toolbox is intended to provide resources wilderness managers can use to address their responsibility under the Wilderness Act to provide "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation". This toolbox offers discussion about the meaning of solitude and primitive and unconfined recreation, provides guidance on capacity determination and monitoring, and compiles examples of plan direction and programs with reference sources and training materials for further study. Toolboxes are comprehensively reviewed and updated approximately every three years, with intermittent small updates and additions in the interim. To suggest new materials for inclusion, email Lisa Ronald at lisa@wilderness.net. Date of last update: 01/09/2019.

Introduction

Overview

Managing to protect "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation" has been perhaps the most controversial aspect of wilderness management to date. Controversy typically emerges if managers propose any type of restriction on visitor access or behavior, such as use limits, to improve opportunities for solitude. Factors contributing to this controversy include: 

  • Lack of clarity over the meaning of solitude thus leading to lack of agreement over what the problem really is (e.g. visitors may view the concept holistically while managers may focus on the number of encounters in particular locations).
  • Perception that solitude is too subjective and individualistic to manage for.
  • Lack of standards or agreement on standards that define when there is a problem requiring corrective action.
  • Managing for solitude without equal consideration of managing for primitive and unconfined recreation opportunities.
  • The importance of access to visitors even when they support wilderness preservation.
  • Tension between providing outstanding opportunities for solitude vs. primitive and unconfined recreation.

This toolbox is intended to provide resources wilderness managers can use to address their responsibility under the Wilderness Act to provide "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation". Specific emphasis is on helping Forest Service managers be successful in meeting element #5 of the 10-year wilderness stewardship challenge. This toolbox offers discussion about the meaning of solitude, primitive and unconfined recreation. It also includes information to help managers understand their responsibility under the Wilderness Act and policy specifically in relation to the difference between managing for opportunities rather than managing for quality experiences. Finally, this toolbox compiles examples of plan direction and programs directed towards managing to protect opportunities for solitude, primitive and unconfined recreation and offers reference sources and training materials for further study.

For more information on elements of visitor use management see the following sections of Wilderness Management, by Hendee and Dawson, 2002 (see Section VII. References for a complete bibliography):

  • The wilderness planning process including establishing a desired condition, identifying indicators, and selecting standards: Chapter 8, pages 209-229
  • Managing using the Limits of Acceptable Change process, Chapter 9, page 231-261.
  • Wilderness Use and User Trends, Chapter 14, pages 373-411.
  • Ecological Impacts of Wilderness Recreation and their Management, Chapter 15, pages 413-459.
  • Wilderness Visitor Management: Stewardship for Quality Experiences, pages 461-503.

Our Stewardship Mandate

The Wilderness Act is one of the only pieces of legislation that explicitly directs federal land agencies to manage for conditions rooted in the social sciences. Due to the complexity associated with human experiences and unfamiliarity with social science research, many managers as well as members of the public often perceive issues related to solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation as subjective and largely a matter of individual choice.

However, given the language of the Wilderness Act, managers risk shirking their responsibility under the Act if they ignore this important wilderness quality. Contributing to the problem is confusion about managers' stewardship responsibility related to this quality. In a nutshell, the Wilderness Act directs managers to provide outstanding opportunities for wilderness experiences, not to manage visitor experiences directly. Visitor experiences are complex and encompass many factors managers have no control over. It is certainly important to understand wilderness visitor characteristics, their expectations and reasons for visiting, and perceptions about conditions and management actions. However, the scope of the Wilderness Act is narrower, directing managers to ensure that opportunities to experience solitude, primitive and unconfined recreation are available and information about available opportunities is disseminated to the public. It is then up to visitors to decide what opportunities to choose and evaluate whether or not they made the right choice. Based on what is known about the meaning of solitude, primitive and unconfined recreation, managers can provide such opportunities for visitors by offering an environment that:

  • Minimizes the number of people seen or heard.
  • Minimizes the sounds and sights of motorized equipment and mechanical transport.
  • Promotes "primitive" means of traveling, camping, and accomplishing stewardship work.
  • Promotes self-reliance through minimal developments and facilities.
  • Promotes unconfined recreation by minimizing regulatory controls and maximizing the opportunity visitors have to make their own choices and discover things for themselves.
  • Allows some degree of challenge, such as streams that must be forded, log stringers in rivers that must be negotiated, rough trails.
  • Maximizes the contrast of the wilderness environment with the sounds and sights of civilization so that natural sounds and sights dominate.
  • Promotes immersion in nature.

Providing opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation does not mean that solitude, primitive and unconfined recreation must be found on every acre of the wilderness every day. Conversely, managers cannot allow uses, development, and regulation to increase to the point where opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation are difficult to find (USDA, Wilderness Policy Review, 1972)

Agency Policy

Agency Strategies

FS 10-Year Wilderness Stewardship Challenge

Interagency Visitor Use Management Council

Capacity Determination

Note - The information presented in the Capacity Determination section is suggested guidance based on existing law, regulation, and policy. It does not represent new agency policy.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 established the National Wilderness Preservation System and requires that wilderness areas are to be "...administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness..." The law also mandates that the managing agency "...preserve its wilderness character...", "...preserve its natural conditions..." in areas that have "...outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation..." while allowing necessary commercial services and as part of "...the enduring resource of wilderness..." But nowhere in the law is determination of visitor use capacity specifically mentioned. The need to determine wilderness visitor use capacity comes from agency policy which is based on the intent of law but also the research based management principles which link desired conditions for the wilderness with human caused impacts. 

The lack of an established methodology in agency policy for defining capacity, along with budget and staff constraints, has resulted in a variety of approaches. In many cases, little information is (or was) collected about baseline visitor use. And, except in wilderness where permits (or registration) are required, use levels are seldom monitored. Because of this lack of information about user trends, efforts to manage visitor use are usually not initiated until resource damage or other conflicts occur, at which point it may be difficult to reduce the number of visitors, or to minimize visitor impacts.

Meanwhile, use of wilderness is changing and continues to evolve with each new generation. Changes in demographics may result in increases in day use, visits by large groups, and requests for commercial services opportunities. In addition, some forests are being challenged, and the courts are ruling, on the management of outfitters and guides. There is a need to determine the ’extent necessary’ or how much commercial use is needed based on a desired condition and visitor use capacity before allocating use.

Overview

The purpose of these guidelines is to provide a tool for understanding and implementing the intent of the Wilderness Act, regulations, and agency policy related to determining visitor use capacity. The need for determining visitor use capacity for wilderness is unique and different than it may be for other lands because of the unique mandates in the Wilderness Act and because wilderness areas represent one side of the spectrum of multiple uses of the public lands. The science is not exact and even the need for a visitor use capacity can be misinterpreted. Successful managers will employ a thoughtful, collaborative process and plan to monitor the results and adapt management actions as needed.

The Wilderness Act implies, but does not directly state, the need for determining visitor use capacity based on the social, biological, and physical components of the wilderness resource. Clearly human influences are to be minimized so that the wilderness character is preserved, natural conditions are protected, and the benefits of the wilderness resource are available in an unimpaired condition for future generations. The wilderness resource includes all the values of wilderness that are defined by the terms social, biological, and physical. Decisions about management of visitor use must consider the potential benefits and effects to wilderness character as defined by the four statutory qualities of: undeveloped, natural, untrammeled, and outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation. Visitor use of wilderness is part of what wilderness is all about and is compatible with all the other mandates of the Wilderness Act to the point where use and effects degrade the natural conditions or impair the character of the area. Visitor use capacity should therefore, be based on the capability of the wilderness to accommodate use consistent with the established desired condition.

Basis in Law

The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as a place that:
  • provides "...for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness." Section 2(a)
  • "...shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness, and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, the preservation of their wilderness character..." Section 2(a)
  • "...is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions..." Section 2(c)
  • "...has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation..." Section 2(c)
  • "...shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use." Section 4(b)
The Act emphasizes the importance of wilderness character by identifying who is to insure that it is perpetuated. It mandates that:
  • "...each agency administering any area designated as wilderness shall be responsible for preserving the wilderness character of the area..." Section 4(b)

Basis in Policy

Agency Planning

Resources

Wilderness Character

Developing a Natural Resource Inventory and Monitoring Program for Visitor Impacts on Recreation Sites: A procedural Manual, Marion, Jeffrey, Natural resources Report NPS/NRVT/NRR-91/06, October 1991

Managing Recreation Use - Problems and Solutions

Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute

See specific publications under "References" below

References

International Journal of Wilderness. 2004. Volume 10, Number 3.