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Visitor Use Management Toolbox

This toolbox is intended to provide resources wilderness managers can use to address their responsibility under the Wilderness Act to provide "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation". This toolbox offers discussion about the meaning of solitude and primitive and unconfined recreation, provides guidance on capacity determination and monitoring, and compiles examples of plan direction and programs with reference sources and training materials for further study. In addition to the resources provided here, you may also be able to obtain advice and recommendations through discussion on Wilderness Connect. Date of last update: 2/14/17.
  1. Introduction
    1. Overview
      Managing to protect "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation" has been perhaps the most controversial aspect of wilderness management to date. Controversy typically emerges if managers propose any type of restriction on visitor access or behavior, such as use limits, to improve opportunities for solitude. Factors contributing to this controversy include:

      • Lack of clarity over the meaning of solitude thus leading to lack of agreement over what the problem really is (e.g. visitors may view the concept holistically while managers may focus on the number of encounters in particular locations).
      • Perception that solitude is too subjective and individualistic to manage for.
      • Lack of standards or agreement on standards that define when there is a problem requiring corrective action.
      • Managing for solitude without equal consideration of managing for primitive and unconfined recreation opportunities.
      • The importance of access to visitors even when they support wilderness preservation.
      • Tension between providing outstanding opportunities for solitude vs. primitive and unconfined recreation.

      This toolbox is intended to provide resources wilderness managers can use to address their responsibility under the Wilderness Act to provide "outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation". Specific emphasis is on helping Forest Service managers be successful in meeting element #5 of the 10-year wilderness stewardship challenge. This toolbox offers discussion about the meaning of solitude, primitive and unconfined recreation. It also includes information to help managers understand their responsibility under the Wilderness Act and policy specifically in relation to the difference between managing for opportunities rather than managing for quality experiences. Finally, this toolbox compiles examples of plan direction and programs directed towards managing to protect opportunities for solitude, primitive and unconfined recreation and offers reference sources and training materials for further study.

      For more information on elements of visitor use management see the following sections of Wilderness Management, by Hendee and Dawson, 2002 (see Section VII. References for a complete bibliography):

      • The wilderness planning process including establishing a desired condition, identifying indicators, and selecting standards: Chapter 8, pages 209-229
      • Managing using the Limits of Acceptable Change process, Chapter 9, page 231-261.
      • Wilderness Use and User Trends, Chapter 14, pages 373-411.
      • Ecological Impacts of Wilderness Recreation and their Management, Chapter 15, pages 413-459.
      • Wilderness Visitor Management: Stewardship for Quality Experiences, pages 461-503.
    2. Our Stewardship Mandate
      The Wilderness Act is one of the only pieces of legislation that explicitly directs federal land agencies to manage for conditions rooted in the social sciences. Due to the complexity associated with human experiences and unfamiliarity with social science research, many managers as well as members of the public often perceive issues related to solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation as subjective and largely a matter of individual choice.

      However, given the language of the Wilderness Act, managers risk shirking their responsibility under the Act if they ignore this important wilderness quality. Contributing to the problem is confusion about managers' stewardship responsibility related to this quality. In a nutshell, the Wilderness Act directs managers to provide outstanding opportunities for wilderness experiences, not to manage visitor experiences directly. Visitor experiences are complex and encompass many factors managers have no control over. It is certainly important to understand wilderness visitor characteristics, their expectations and reasons for visiting, and perceptions about conditions and management actions. However, the scope of the Wilderness Act is narrower, directing managers to ensure that opportunities to experience solitude, primitive and unconfined recreation are available and information about available opportunities is disseminated to the public. It is then up to visitors to decide what opportunities to choose and evaluate whether or not they made the right choice. Based on what is known about the meaning of solitude, primitive and unconfined recreation, managers can provide such opportunities for visitors by offering an environment that:

      • Minimizes the number of people seen or heard.
      • Minimizes the sounds and sights of motorized equipment and mechanical transport.
      • Promotes "primitive" means of traveling, camping, and accomplishing stewardship work.
      • Promotes self-reliance through minimal developments and facilities.
      • Promotes unconfined recreation by minimizing regulatory controls and maximizing the opportunity visitors have to make their own choices and discover things for themselves.
      • Allows some degree of challenge, such as streams that must be forded, log stringers in rivers that must be negotiated, rough trails.
      • Maximizes the contrast of the wilderness environment with the sounds and sights of civilization so that natural sounds and sights dominate.
      • Promotes immersion in nature.

      Providing opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation does not mean that solitude, primitive and unconfined recreation must be found on every acre of the wilderness every day. Conversely, managers cannot allow uses, development, and regulation to increase to the point where opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation are difficult to find (USDA, Wilderness Policy Review, 1972)
    3. Agency Policy
      1. BLM Policy
      2. FWS Policy
      3. FS Policy
      4. NPS Policy
    4. Defining Solitude, Primitive and Unconfined Recreation
    5. Indirect and Direct Methods for Visitor Use Mgmt
  2. Agency Strategies
    1. FS Wilderness Recreation Strategy
      1. FS 10-Year Wilderness Stewardship Challenge
        1. Visitor Use Management and the 10YWSC
        2. Element 5
      2. Interagency Visitor Use Management Council
        1. Visitor Use Management Framework
        2. Position Paper on Visitor Use Management on Public Lands and Waters
        3. Position Paper on Visitor Capacity on Federally Managed Lands and Waters
  3. Examples of Management Plan Direction and Standards
    1. BLM
      1. South McCullough and Wee Thump Joshua Tree Wilderness Areas Managment Plan, 2005
    2. FWS
      1. Fort Niobrara NWR River Recreation Management Plan
      2. Okefenokee NWR Wilderness Canoeing Regulations
      3. Oregon Islands NWR
    3. FS
      1. Alpine Lakes Wilderness Alternatives
      2. Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Forest Plan Direction
      3. Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Recreation Stock Grazing Standards
      4. Ansel Adams-John Muir-Dinkey Lakes Wilderness Management Plan
      5. Bob Marshall Wilderness Recreation Direction
      6. Bridger-Teton National Forest Wilderness Direction
      7. BWCAW Standards and Guidelines
      8. Cohutta Wilderness LAC
      9. Daniel Boone NF LAC-Indicators
      10. Eagle Cap Wilderness Management Options
      11. Eagle Cap Wilderness Standards and Guidelines
      12. Eagle Cap Wilderness Stock Mgmt Plan
      13. Forest Service Remote Sensing Applications Center
      14. GP NF
        1. Recreation Use EA
        2. Recreation Use DN
      15. High Uintas Indicators, Standards, Monitoring
      16. Jedediah Smith and Winegar Hole Wilderness Direction
      17. Mt. Rogers Wilderness LAC
        1. Summary
        2. Issues
        3. Step 2 Results
        4. Step 3 Indicators
        5. Step 5 Social (Microsoft Publisher File)
        6. Step 7 Actions
      18. R5 River Recreation Monitoring Plan
      19. SJRG NF Management Direction
      20. SJRG NF Use Registration and Compliance Estimation
  4. Capacity Determination
    Note - The information presented in the Capacity Determination section is suggested guidance based on existing law, regulation, and policy. It does not represent new agency policy.

    The Wilderness Act of 1964 established the National Wilderness Preservation System and requires that wilderness areas are to be "…administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness…" The law also mandates that the managing agency "…preserve its wilderness character…", "… preserve its natural conditions…" in areas that have "…outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation…" while allowing necessary commercial services and as part of "… the enduring resource of wilderness…" But nowhere in the law is determination of visitor use capacity specifically mentioned. The need to determine wilderness visitor use capacity comes from agency policy which is based on the intent of law but also the research based management principles which link desired conditions for the wilderness with human caused impacts.

    The lack of an established methodology in agency policy for defining capacity, along with budget and staff constraints, has resulted in a variety of approaches. In many cases, little information is (or was) collected about baseline visitor use. And, except in wilderness where permits (or registration) are required, use levels are seldom monitored. Because of this lack of information about user trends, efforts to manage visitor use are usually not initiated until resource damage or other conflicts occur, at which point it may be difficult to reduce the number of visitors, or to minimize visitor impacts.

    Meanwhile, use of wilderness is changing and continues to evolve with each new generation. Changes in demographics may result in increases in day use, visits by large groups, and requests for commercial services opportunities. In addition, some forests are being challenged, and the courts are ruling, on the management of outfitters and guides. There is a need to determine the 'extent necessary' or how much commercial use is needed based on a desired condition and visitor use capacity before allocating use.
    1. Purpose and Need
      1. Overview
        The purpose of these guidelines is to provide a tool for understanding and implementing the intent of the Wilderness Act, regulations, and agency policy related to determining visitor use capacity. The need for determining visitor use capacity for wilderness is unique and different than it may be for other lands because of the unique mandates in the Wilderness Act and because wilderness areas represent one side of the spectrum of multiple uses of the public lands. The science is not exact and even the need for a visitor use capacity can be misinterpreted. Successful managers will employ a thoughtful, collaborative process and plan to monitor the results and adapt management actions as needed.

        The Wilderness Act implies, but does not directly state, the need for determining visitor use capacity based on the social, biological, and physical components of the wilderness resource. Clearly human influences are to be minimized so that the wilderness character is preserved, natural conditions are protected, and the benefits of the wilderness resource are available in an unimpaired condition for future generations. The wilderness resource includes all the values of wilderness that are defined by the terms social, biological, and physical. Decisions about management of visitor use must consider the potential benefits and effects to wilderness character as defined by the four statutory qualities of: undeveloped, natural, untrammeled, and outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation. Visitor use of wilderness is part of what wilderness is all about and is compatible with all the other mandates of the Wilderness Act to the point where use and effects degrade the natural conditions or impair the character of the area. Visitor use capacity should therefore, be based on the capability of the wilderness to accommodate use consistent with the established desired condition.
      2. Basis in law
        The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as a place that:

        • provides "...for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness." Section 2(a)
        • "...shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness, and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, the preservation of their wilderness character..." Section 2(a)
        • "...is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions..." Section 2(c)
        • "...has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation..." Section 2(c)
        • "...shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational, conservation, and historical use." Section 4(b)

        The Act emphasizes the importance of wilderness character by identifying who is to insure that it is perpetuated. It mandates that:
        • "...each agency administering any area designated as wilderness shall be responsible for preserving the wilderness character of the area..." Section 4(b)
      3. Basis in BLM policy
      4. Basis in FWS policy
      5. Basis in FS policy
      6. Relationship to Agency Planning
    2. Numerical Visitor Capacity: A Guide to Its Use in Wilderness
      This guide presents an analysis of the purpose and need for estimating numerical visitor capacity for wilderness areas and describes methodologies. This guide is not agency policy but the approach and processes included in this guide comply with requirements of the Wilderness Act and are consistent with agency wilderness policy for planning and stewardship.
    3. Wilderness Stewardship Framework
      1. Process
      2. Numeric Capacity Determination Template
    4. Pitfalls, hints, suggestions
    5. Guidance for Managing Informal Trails
      This paper presents basic management guidance for responding to the proliferation of visitor-created trails.
    6. Examples
    7. References
    8. Agency Strategies
      1. FS
        1. FS 10-Year Wilderness Stewardship Challenge - Element 5
        2. FS 10-Year Wilderness Stewardship Challenge - Element 8
  5. Monitoring
    1. Overview of Use Estimation Systems
    2. Summary of Visitor Use Est. Techniques
    3. Use Characteristics Checklist
    4. Use Estimation Techniques Checklist
    5. Trail Encounters and Occupied Campsites Monitoring
    6. Guide to Monitoring Encounters in Wilderness
    7. Trail Encounters and Occupied Campsites Monitoring booklets
    8. BLM Examples
      1. Steen Mountain Wilderness Monitoring Plan
      2. King Range Wilderness Monitoring Program
      3. Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument Program
        1. Visitor Use Reporting Plan
        2. Monitoring Form
        3. Monitoring Template
        4. Trails Monitoring Form
        5. Monitoring Proposal
    9. FS Examples
      1. National Protocol
        1. National Minimum Protocol for Monitoring Solitude
        2. Enhanced Protocol for Monitoring Solitude
        3. Classification of FS Wildernesses for Solitude Monitoring
      2. Wilderness Solitude Monitoring in the Cascade Crest
      3. Teton Ranger Reports Database (Microsoft Access Database)
      4. Gros Ventre Wilderness Monitoring Form
      5. High Uintas Wilderness
        1. High Uintas Monitoring Plan
        2. High Uintas Monitoring Plan Appendix
          1. Desired Conditions and Guidelines
          2. Class Map
          3. Monitoring Attachment to Record of Decision
          4. Forms (Excel Spreadsheet)
          5. Sensitive Plant Populations (Excel Spreadsheet)
          6. Firewood Availability Survey Instructions
      6. Bob Marshall Monitoring Guidebook
      7. Sawtooth Inventory and Monitoring (Resource Protection Toolbox)
    10. Recreation Site Monitoring Toolbox
  6. Management Practices - Forest Service (Agency-Specific Resources)
    1. Wilderness Management 101
    2. Wilderness Stewardship Desk Guide - Management Practices for the National Forests
  7. Permits Systems
    1. Scantron Wilderness Self-Issue Permit
  8. Resources
    1. Landres, P., Boutcher, S., Merigliano, L., Barns, C., Davis, D., Hall, T., Henry, S. Hunter, B., Janiga, P., Laker, M., McPherson, A., Powell, D., Rowan, M., Sater, S. 2005. Monitoring selected conditions related to wilderness character: a national framework. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-151. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research
      1. Table of Indicators and Measures
    2. Developing a Natural Resource Inventory and Monitoring Program for Visitor Impacts on Recreation Sites: A procedural Manual, Marion, Jeffrey, Natural resources Report NPS/NRVT/NRR-91/06, October 1991
      1. Appendix and References
    3. National Survey on Recreation and the Environment (NSRE)
    4. PNW Wilderness Experience Study and Related Research - David Cole and Troy Hall
    5. U of AZ Use Inventory, Monitoring, and Simulation Projects
      1. U of AZ Bibliography - Contains links to Use Monitoring Projects in many areas including: Salmon-Challis NF -Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, John Muir, Ansel Adams and Dinkey Lakes Wilderness Areas, Misty Fjords National Monument, Pacific Southwest Region
    6. Computer Simulation Modeling of Recreation Use - Current Status, Case Studies and Future Directions
    7. Managing Recreation Use - Problems and Solutions
      1. Search Management Strategies for Common Wilderness Recreation Problems (online matrix search)
    8. Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute - See specific publications under "References" below
      1. Publications Search
      2. Linking Wilderness Research and Management; Annotated Reading List
      3. Research in a Nutshell; Results and Management Implications
    9. Indicators and Standards List by Wilderness
    10. National Minimum Set Standards-Draft
    11. FS - Indicators and Standards by Wilderness
    12. NPS Potential Indicators and Standards
    13. FS Wilderness Recreation Strategy
    14. Basic Statistics Vocabulary
    15. Wilderness Interpretation and Education Toolbox
    16. Climbing Management: A Guide to Climbing Issues and the Development of a Climbing Management Plan, The Access Fund, 2008
    17. Wilderness Hot Spring Management: Stewardship Practices and Problems at Unique High-Use Destinations
      A 35 minute presentation of case study research done on three high-use hot springs that illustrates impacts and management strategies
  9. Training Resources
    1. Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center Online Courses
      1. Wilderness Visitor Use Management: Fundamentals
      2. Wilderness Visitor Use Management: Strategies
      3. Wilderness Visitor Use Management: Monitoring Impacts and Uses
    2. University of Montana Wilderness Institute Distance Education Program
      1. PTRM 407 Management of Recreation Resources/PTRM 562 Managing Recreation Resources in Wilderness Settings
      2. NRSM 406 Wilderness Management Planning/NRSM 563 Wilderness Planning Theory, Management Frameworks and Application
    3. Forest Service
      1. National Minimum Protocol for Monitoring Solitude Training PowerPoint (12 MB)
      2. National Minimum Protocol for Monitoring Solitude Training Webinar
        To play this webinar, download the webinar files, unzip them, then click on "Monitoring_Solitude.html" file to launch and run the webinar locally.
    4. Rec. Mgmt. in Wilderness (6.44 MB)
    5. Wilderness Recreation Planning (26.7 MB)
    6. Need for Change-Desired Conditions (10.48 MB)
    7. Desired Character (2.14 MB)
    8. Planning Framework (3.05 MB)
    9. Inventory Conditions(1.61 MB)
    10. Indicators and Standards (748 KB)
    11. Indicators and Standards (888 KB)
    12. Campsite Monitoring (3.74 MB)
    13. Campsite Monitoring Process (1.86 MB)
    14. Campsite Management (2.77 MB)
    15. Monitoring Visitor Use-Experiences (1.34 MB)
    16. Use Estimation (1.42 MB)
    17. Rec. Management Strategies (3.89 MB)
    18. Managing Visitor Use (3.47 MB)
    19. Registration and Permits (613 KB)
    20. Wilderness Accessibility (68.6 MB)
    21. Trail Management Practices (3.60 MB)
    22. Trail Skills Training, Pacific Crest Trail Association
    23. Risk Management(3.63 MB)
  10. References
    1. Anderson, D. H., Lime, D. L., Wang, T. L. 1998, Maintaining the Quality of Park Resources and Visitor Experiences, A Handbook for Managers, University of Minnesota, 135 p.
    2. Aust, M. W., Marion, J. L., Kyle, K. 2005. Research for the Development of Best Management Practices for Minimizing Horse Trail Impacts on the Hoosier National Forest. Management Report. U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, Final Report, Bedford, IN 77 p.
    3. Cole, D. N. 2001. Visitor use density and wilderness experiences: a historical review of research. Pages 11-20 in Visitor Use Density and Wilderness Experience: Proceedings (W.A. Friedmund and D.N. Cole, compilers). USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-P-20, Fort Collins, CO.
    4. Cole, D. N., Petersen, M. E., Lucas, R. C. 1987. Managing wilderness recreation use: common problems and potential solutions. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report INT-GTR-230.
    5. Daniels, M. L., Marion, J. L. 2006. Visitor evaluations of management actions at a highly impacted Appalachian Trail camping area. Environmental Management 38(6): 1006-1019.
    6. Glaspell, B., Puttkammer, A. 2001. Linking wilderness research and management-volume 2. Defining, managing, and monitoring wilderness visitor experiences: an annotated reading list. (Wright, Vita, series ed.) Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-79-VOL 2. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 29 p.
    7. Johnson, B., Hall, T., Cole, D. 2005. Naturalness, Primitiveness, Remoteness, and Wilderness Visitors' Understanding and Experience of Wilderness Qualities, University of Idaho
    8. Landres, P., Boutcher, S., Merigliano, L., Barns, C., Davis, D., Hall, T., Henry, S. Hunter, B., Janiga, P., Laker, M., McPherson, A., Powell, D., Rowan, M., Sater, S. 2005. Monitoring selected conditions related to wilderness character: a national framework. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-151. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research
    9. Leung, Y., Marion, J.. 2000. Recreation Impacts and Management in Wilderness: A State of Knowledge Review, USDA-FS Proceedings RMRS-P-15-Vol.-5
    10. Manning, R. E., Jacoby, C., Marion, J. L. 2006. Acadia National Park visitor use and impact monitoring programs for carrying capacity decision making. George Wright Forum 23(2): 59-72.
    11. Manning, R. E., Lime, D. W. 2000. Defining and managing the quality of wilderness recreation experiences. Pages 13-52 in Wilderness Science in a Time of Change Conference, Volume 4: Wilderness visitors, experiences, and visitor management (S.F. McCool, D.N. Cole, W.T. Borrrie, and J.O'Loughlin, compilers). USDA Forest Service Proceedings RMRS-P-15-VOL-4, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Ogden, UT.
    12. Marion, J. L. 2003. Camping Impact Management on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail: Appendix 2 - Camping Management Practices. Appalachian Trail Conference, Harpers Ferry, WV.
    13. Marion, J. L., Farrell, T. 2002. Management practices that concentrate visitor activities: Camping impact management at Isle Royale National Park, USA. Journal of Environmental Management 66(2): 201-212.
    14. Marion, J. L., Reid, S. E. 2007. Minimising visitor impacts to protected areas: The efficacy of low impact education programmes. Journal of Sustainable Tourism 15(1): 5-27.
    15. Monz, C., Roggenbuck, J., Cole, D., Brame, R., Yoder, A. 2000. Wilderness Party Size Regulations: Implications for Management and a Decisionmaking Framework. In: Cole, David N.; McCool, Stephen F.; Borrie, William T.; O’Loughlin, Jennifer, comps. 2000. Wilderness science in a time of change conference— Volume 4: Wilderness visitors, experiences, and visitor management; 2000 May 23–27; Missoula, MT. Proceedings RMRS-P-15-VOL-4. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 265-273.
    16. Pettebone, D., Newman, P., Lawson, S.R. (2010). Estimating visitor use at attraction sites and trailheads in Yosemite National Park using automated visitor counters. Landscape and Urban Planning, 97, 229-238.
    17. Reid, S. E., Marion, J. L. 2004. Effectiveness of a confinement strategy for reducing campsite impacts in Shenandoah National Park. Environmental Conservation 31(4): 274-282.
    18. Reid, S. E., Marion, J. L. 2005. A comparison of campfire impacts and policies in seven protected areas. Environmental Management 36(1): 48-58.
    19. Watson, A. E., Cole D. N., Turner, D. L., Reynolds, P. S. 2000. Wilderness recreation use estimation: a handbook of methods and systems. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report RMRS-GTR-56.
    20. Watson, A. E., Cronn, R., Christensen, N. A. 1998. Monitoring inter-group encounters in wilderness. USDA Forest Service Research Paper RMRS-RP-14.
    21. Washington Trails Association. 1997. Comments on wilderness solitude. Special reprint from Signpost for Northwest Trails. Seattle, WA.
    22. International Journal of Wilderness. 2004. Volume 10, Number 3.
      1. Landres, P. L., Developing Indicators to Monitor the "Outstanding Opportunities" Quality of Wilderness Character
      2. Dawson, C. P., Monitoring Outstanding Opportunities for Solitude
      3. Roggenbuck, J. W., Managing for Primitive Recreation in Wilderness
      4. Cole, D. N., Wilderness Experiences What Should We Be Managing For?
      5. Norden, K., Monitoring Wilderness Conditions in the Green Mountain National Forest