- Federally designated wilderness areas in the United States are uniquely required to provide opportunities for particular types of recreational experiences. According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, the law that governs the management of designated wilderness in the U.S., wilderness areas are to provide “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.” The meaning of this phrase is debated, and land managers today have little guidance – in the form of standards and guidelines – to preserve this experiential aspect of wilderness character. The contention over this phrase prompts two questions that will be addressed in this dissertation: (1) what was the original intent of the phrase? and (2) how do contemporary federal land management personnel understand and implement it on the ground?
In chapter two, I addressed how the phrase “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation” was historically understood by actors essential to the passage of the Wilderness Act. To do this, I used document analysis as a research method. My results suggest that wilderness proponents felt that “solitude” and “primitive and unconfined” were distinct. Further, they felt that the human sensory experience and directly experiencing nature in large and/or remote areas were essential components of wilderness “solitude.” Primitive was understood as referring to modes of unmechanized travel that were considered permissible in wilderness. Unconfined, while not prominently discussed, likely referred to the unregulated nature of the wilderness experience.
In chapter three, I explored the on-the-ground management of solitude across the USFS. I used street-level bureaucracy (SLB) as a conceptual framework in this study, which attuned the decisions and actions of low-level workers and their foundational role in producing and performing policy. My primary research objective was to build upon SLB by studying a novel population that was unique from most other research in SLB scholarship. For the study, I conducted qualitative interviews of 33 wilderness managers across all regions of the USFS. The results of this study suggest that wilderness managers are similar in many ways to the street-level workers traditionally studied in SLB. However, managers were also unique in ways pertinent the development of a more robust SLB framework. First, managers lacked data and an inability to engage with existing empirical research, which constrains their ability to effectively do their job. This is a unique constraint compared to other types of street-level workers studied in SLB. Second, because wilderness managers, as opposed to other workers traditionally studied in SLB, are responsible for the stewardship of a natural resource, I suggest that it may be essential to consider how their decisions and actions are oriented towards biophysical and social values of the resource rather than their perceptions of public preferences towards the use of that resource.
Wilderness and the wilderness experience, however, are more than just legal constructs. Some have critiqued the wilderness idea as ethnocentric, unscientific, ahistorical, classist, and physically ableist. Representations of wilderness may be seen as understood by certain – and often marginalized – groups as exclusionary. At the same time, members of the wilderness management community are calling for greater representation and diversity wilderness recreation. In the chapter four, I investigated representations of the wilderness experience through a disability studies lens to contribute eco-crip scholarship. I conducted a thematic narrative analysis of 60 place-based wilderness narratives published in the Wilderness Society’s periodical The Living Wilderness. My results suggest that the authors of wilderness narratives discursively constructed the experience of the city and its manifestations as unnatural, abnormal, and inauthentic. The wilderness experience, conversely, was constructed as natural, normal, and authentic. Given this, urbanity and its related elements were ultimately prescribed as bad, while wilderness was prescribed as good.
In my fifth and concluding chapter, I summarized the main findings from each study and provided recommendations for land managers based on my findings.