Wilderness character monitoring seeks to answer the question, “How is wilderness character changing over time?” Similar but slightly different, user capacity approaches in wilderness evaluate “at what point … visitor use [is] causing undesirable impacts to wilderness resources and visitor experiences.” There is a nexus between these questions as they relate to wilderness management. This article examines the similarities in approaches to addressing wilderness character and user capacity, and more specifically lessons learned from the respective processes in three planning examples.
Both the 1964 Wilderness Act and 2006 National Park Service (NPS) Management Policies require natural and cultural resource condition monitoring and long-term trend identification in wilderness character. This monitoring is based on the four wilderness qualities: untrammeled, natural, undeveloped, and opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation. The interagency “Keeping It Wild” framework (Landres et al. 2008) was developed to monitor wilderness character, but there has been limited application within the Park Service to date. One of the primary reasons for this is the need to develop specific guidance on implementing the framework and integrating it into agency planning efforts. As part of 2010 initiatives to develop guidance for field application, NPS staff found an opportunity to merge elements of the “Keeping It Wild” framework with the framework to address user capacity. Although these frameworks use slightly different terminology, the end goals are largely the same: to provide a process that guides planning and management to preserve resources while also protecting the visitor experience. In three examples, some elements and methods to address wilderness character and user capacity were merged, resulting in lessons for guiding future wilderness stewardship planning and management.