By: Alan E. Watson, Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station
The Role of Wilderness Protection and Societal Engagement as Indicators of Well-Being: An Examination of Change at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
A societal decision to protect over 9 million acres of land and water for its wilderness character in the early 1960s reflected US wealth in natural resources, pride in the nation’s cultural history and our commitment to the well-being of future generations to both experience wild nature and enjoy benefits flowing from these natural ecosystems. There is no question that our relationship with wilderness has changed. Individually it is probably quite easy to examine differences in the role wilderness plays in the quality of our lives today compared to some previous time. But how the role of wilderness protection has changed for society is more difficult to describe. In only a few places do we have data across multiple decades that would allow us to even examine how users or their use may have changed over time. At the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota we are fortunate to have multiple studies that can give us some 40 years of insight into how some aspects of use have changed there. For example, an analysis of results of visitor studies at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 1969, 1991 and 2007 reveal some big differences in who is out there today, most notably the presence of a much older, more experienced and better educated user population, almost exclusively white and predominantly male. It is time to decide whether the best thing for wilderness and or society is to try to restore historic patterns of use (to include younger people, the less wealthy and lower educated) in greater numbers, to try to identify new markets within growing underrepresented populations, or adapt our perception of wilderness stewardship to better include planning for emerging social values of a new generation with other indicators of well-being. A growing population with greater dependence on ecosystem services provided by protected nature could lead to wilderness protection becoming an important quantitative and qualitative element of quality of life indices in the very near future.