Who Visits Wilderness and Why?

Since the signing of the Wilderness Act in 1964, the composition of American society has changed dramatically. These changes have been accompanied by equally dramatic transformations in natural environments stemming from climate change, mega-fires, biological invasions, landscape fragmentation and atmospheric deposition. This evolving social-ecological dynamic is affecting Wilderness use and value in a manner that is poorly understood. Consequently, the Wilderness Economics Working Group is developing a comprehensive, geographically based assessment of the history of Wilderness use in the United States that describes how the recreational use of Wilderness has changed in response to these factors during the past several decades. This assessment not only provides insight into the changing nature of Wilderness use and value, it also allows a view of how Wilderness use may evolve in the future.

The approach we use in the assessment is quantitative and relies upon historical data that are captured in wilderness use permits, trail registers, and other data sources. To date, our Group has obtained nearly one million data points spanning more than 30 Wilderness Areas (see map) with some data reaching back into the 1970s. The success of this assessment depends upon the collection and analysis of all available Wilderness permits and trail registers from across the four Wilderness management agencies.

Wilderness Permit Data Map