Visitor Use Management

The Visitor Use Management toolbox provides wilderness managers resources to help with the responsibility of providing "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation" that preserves all qualities of wilderness character as a whole. 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. Contact us to suggest new materials for inclusion.


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 for wilderness managers to use in addressing 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, 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.

Table 16.2. Direct and Indirect Techniques for Managing the Type and Amount of Wilderness Uses Modified from Manning and Lime 2000
INDIRECT – Emphasis on influencing or modifying use and/or behavior. Individual retains freedom to choose. Control less complete. More variation in use possible 1. Physical design and alterations
  • Improve, maintain, or neglect roads.
  • Improve, maintain, or neglect campsites.
  • Make trails more or less difficult.
  • Build trails or leave areas trailless.
  • Improve fish or wildlife populations or take no action (stock or allow depletion or elimination).
2. Information and education programs
  • Information to redistribute use.
  • Advertise recreation opportunities in surrounding area, outside wilderness.
  • Minimum-impact education programs (e.g., LNT).
  • Advertise underused areas and patterns of use
3. Entry and eligibility requirements
  • Charge constant visitor fee.
  • Charge differential fees by trial zone, season, entry point.
  • Require proof of wilderness knowledge and/or skills (or group permits).
DIRECT – Emphasis on regulation of behavior. Individual choice restricted. High degree of control 1. Increased enforcement
  • Impose fines.
  • Increase surveillance of area.
2. Zoning
  • Separate incompatible uses (hiker-only zones, areas with horse use.)
  • Prohibit uses at times of high damage potential (no horse use in high meadows until soil moisture declines).
  • Limit camping to setbacks from water or other features.
3. Rationing use
  • Rotate use (open or close access points, trails, campsites).
  • Require reservations.
  • Assign campsites and/or travel routes to each camper group.
  • Limit usage via access point.
  • Limit camping to designated campsites only.
  • Limit length of stay in areas.
4. Restrictions on activities
  • Prohibit certain types of use.
  • Restrict building of campfires.
  • Restrict certain recreation activities.

Manning, R. E.; Lime, D.W. 2000. Defining and managing the quality of wilderness recreation experiences. In: Cole, D.N.: McCool, S.F.: Borrie, W.T.: O’Loughlin, J., comps. Proceedings: Wilderness Science in a Time of Change Vol.4: Wilderness Visitors, Experiences, and Visitor Management; May 23-27, 1999; Missoula, MT. RMRS—15. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Staion, pp. 13-52.

Table taken from: Dawson, Chad P. and Hendee, John C. 2009. Wilderness Management Stewardship and Protection of Resources and Values, 4th Ed. Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, CO. page 455.

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.


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)
  • " 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



Management Practices - Forest Service (Agency Resources)

Permit Systems


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