Joe Roggenbuck

Dr. Roggenbuck as a young man, wearing thick tortoiseshell glasses and smiling enthusiastically in front of a tree.

Joe Roggenbuck, who retired as Professor of Natural Resource Recreation, Department of Forestry at Virginia Tech in 2006, collaborated extensively with the USDA Forest Service and other agencies in the conduct of research in wilderness, parks and on rivers, beginning with his graduate work in the early 1970s. Joe received bachelors and master’s degrees from the School of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan, in 1968 and 1969. At Michigan, Ross Tocher and Bev Driver were important mentors. He completed his Ph.D. at Utah State University in 1975, working initially with Steve McCool and Perry Brown and later with Rich Schreyer. His dissertation – funded by the National Park Service – studied whitewater boaters' perceptions of crowding and social carrying capacity on the Yampa and Green Rivers in Dinosaur National Monument. In particular, Joe attempted to segment boaters according to their motivations for their visit and explored the degree to which different segments varied in their perceptions, attitudes and management preferences. He taught briefly at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point before taking a position in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Resources at Virginia Tech in 1977.

Shortly thereafter, he began cooperative work with the Wilderness Management Research Unit in Missoula, Montana. In early work, he replicated the visitor use and user studies of Bob Lucas and George Stankey done in large western wilderness in several smaller wilderness areas in the East. Bev Driver of the Rocky Mountain Forest Experiment provided funding for Joe to study the experiences sought and benefits gained from visits to wilderness and backcountry areas in the East and South. Subsequently, Joe worked, with funding from John Hendee and the Southeastern Forest Experiment Station, to address problems of congestion and impacts in the small wilderness areas in the East by testing the effectiveness of informational and educational messages. A lone wilderness scientist in the East, Joe developed undergraduate and graduate courses on wilderness management and mentored wilderness scientists, Alan Watson and Bill Borrie. He was devoted to his students, frequently taking them on multi-week field trips around the country, introducing them to wilderness, leading them on canoeing and backpacking trips into wild country, and meeting with wilderness managers.

Joe has authored or co-authored more than 75 publications covering a diverse range of wilderness topics. With Bob Lucas in 1985, he wrote a seminal state-of-knowledge paper on wilderness use and user characteristics for the first wilderness research conference in Fort Collins, Colorado. In addition to descriptive visitor studies and working on traditional topics such as solitude and carrying capacity, Joe was interested in the utility of education as a means of enhancing wilderness experiences, changing visitor behavior, and reducing site impacts. He often sought new ways to explore old questions. He conducted field experiments. He directly observed visitor behavior or behavior traces instead of simply relying on self-reported behavior. After Alan Watson joined the USFS Wilderness Management Research Unit in 1988, Joe’s cooperative work with unit scientists intensified. He and his Virginia Tech colleague Dan Williams began studies of the lived experience in wilderness. With Bill Borrie he studied the on-site wilderness experience as it occurred—how it ebbed and flowed—rather than relying entirely on surveys conducted after the experience occurred. This work provided insight into the way the nature of experiences was changing as visits became shorter and day visits more numerous. Like many other wilderness research scientists, Joe employed the social norm concept as an empirical basis for deciding on appropriate conditions in wilderness. But he challenged his colleagues on what social conditions in wilderness for which visitors might reasonably have norms and how they might best be measured.

Late in his career, Joe called for research on whether societal changes and rapid technological innovations were changing the nature of wilderness experiences sought, the ease with which these experiences might be attained, and whether these changes were causing the ideals of wilderness as expressed by such wilderness philosophers as Olson, Marshall, and Leopold to fade. Joe wondered whether the instant feedback and gratification of virtual wilderness programs might reduce the demand for the slow and often messy unfolding of wilderness experiences and benefits in real time. He called upon his research colleagues to assess whether technological advances in backcountry equipment (e.g., gas stoves, fish finders), behavior prescriptions (Leave No Trace, campfire bans), and communication and locational devices (cell phones, GPS) might be changing the very nature of wilderness experiences and the required woodsman skills championed by early wilderness writers and The Wilderness Act of 1964. Finally, Joe called for research on the conditions of the wilderness environment and the wilderness visit that enhance the likelihood of deep or spiritual experiences in wilderness, experiences of connection, oneness and harmony with the ancient rhythms of nature and the universe. Understanding such peak experiences was important for Joe in his early papers as a student in the 1970s; they remained so when he retired in 2006. 

An older Dr. Roggenbuck out in the forest. His hair is grey.

During Joe’s career he contributed to the international study of wilderness with two sabbatical appointments at the University of Melbourne, a six-month appointment to the Queensland (Australia) National Parks and Wildlife Service, and work in New Zealand and Norway.  His awards include the Excellence in Wilderness Stewardship Research Award from the USDA Forest Service and election in 2000 to the Academy of Leisure Sciences.