Some federal public lands have been legally protected as “wilderness areas” since 1964 in the US. A federal science program evolved first in response to a novel public lands management concept, and subsequently in response to new issues that emerged both as society changed and more knowledge about social and ecological values of wilderness accumulated. Wilderness science needs have largely been defined by government and cooperating academic scientists through identification of researchable questions which, historically, have centered on science disciplines, wilderness attributes, or threats to these attributes. Analysis of a survey of 368 federal wilderness managers demonstrates how management can inform science. From over 1200 responses, a mental map of research needs, prioritized by the purpose of the research, led to proposal of 5 major strategic science planning dimensions: (1) basic research to understand effects of various threats; (2) integrated research on “big” emerging issues that lend themselves to larger than wilderness issues; (3) applied research to evaluate stewardship effectiveness; (4) applied research to support stewardship tool development and; (5) applied research to support inventory and monitoring. A strategic science plan that identifies targets according to this mental model will increase likelihood of science being used to guide management.