Wilderness areas provide unique visitor experiences - experiences that need special kinds of protection. The immediate thoughts, emotions and feelings associated with being in wilderness and the more enduring changes in attitudes, perceptions, and sense of self that arise from these encounters with wilderness are different from experiences in other recreational settings. Since they were poorly understood, research on wilderness visitors and experiences began shortly before passage of The Wilderness Act in 1964. Past and ongoing research by the Rocky Mountain Research Station and its partners provides insights into the nature of wilderness experiences and the factors that influence experience quality.
The Wilderness Visitor Experience Workshop was held at the Lubrecht Experimental Forest near Missoula, MT, on April 4-7, 2011 with the purposes of celebrating lessons learned from half a century of research on visitor experience and preparing for the 50 years of wilderness research and stewardship. The workshop resulted in proceedings that reviewed the state-of-knowledge regarding wilderness visitor experiences and included example of recent empirical research.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute and The Wilderness Institute at the University of Montana provided Financial support for the workshop.
High quality wilderness experiences provide numerous benefits to society: personal, societal and economic.
Research on wilderness visitor experience initially emphasized motivations for taking wilderness trips and the experiential outcomes of wilderness visits.
Recent research more deeply explores the lived experience in wilderness and the process by which experience is constructed and developed into long-lasting relationships. Studies also focus on the effects of setting attributes, including use density, on visitor experience.
Wilderness experiences are highly diverse and idiosyncratic and visitors are highly adaptable and adept at negotiating the situations they experience.
It is impossible to know how to most effectively steward wilderness experiences without first deciding who and what to manage for. Management action or inaction cannot guarantee high quality experiences for everyone.
Research on visitor experience contributes to the protection of high quality experiences in wilderness areas now and into the future.