We started this venture in 2012 by visiting all wilderness in Virginia where we lived at the time. We then sought to revisit wilderness areas in the West we had visited before to observe natural history, use and management over time. We wanted to provide sound information for other visitors (e.g. route maps, GPS tracks, management features, policy explanations). But our initial encounter with Eastern wilderness—and subsequent Western experience—raised an issue we have not seen discussed in the debates over wilderness allocation or management. Our ideas on this problem and how to address it will evolve as we visit more areas and perhaps interact with other visitors, managers and wilderness advocates.
The issue surfaced in visiting 24 Virginia wilderness areas. We learned that—yes, as most people think, certain areas of wilderness are highly overused. In the East, areas close to the Appalachian Trail or well-known features are being loved to death. But, for the most part, Virginia wilderness is minimally known and rarely visited.
Returning to western wilderness areas that we had hiked in the 70s to 90s, we found a similar phenomenon. Examples:
- On a nice winter day, you might find 100 day hikers headed to Mt. Wrightson from Madera Canyon (Mount Wrightson Wilderness in southern Arizona) but no one on dozens of miles of trail south, east and west of the peak.
- The popular Sawtooth Wilderness in central Idaho is heavily backpacked in summer season; but most visitors camp at the same dozen lakes (of more than 100) in several popular areas; hiking less than 25 percent of 350 trail miles.
- On a 2018 trip to Eagle Cap Wilderness in Oregon, we found good, seldom-used trails in the southwest side while the northeast side around Eagle Cap Peak is heavily used.
- In the 2.2 million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River is overwhelmed with river runners (despite a lottery system that greatly limits use) and you see dozens of backpackers in the Bighorn Crags area—but hardly a soul in the rest of this vast wilderness.
- In Arizona near Phoenix, the southeast side of Superstition Wilderness is heavily-used from late fall through early spring; while the western Mazatzal Wilderness—about same distance from Phoenix and same Sonoran Desert appeal—attracts so few people that we encountered only two people in 4 visits covering 240 miles of poorly maintained legacy trails from cattle ranching days. (although many people hike or backpack a small portion of this wilderness along Mazatzal Divide; which is also a section of the Arizona Trail).
Disproportionate use of wilderness may be partly result of accessibility from good roads and proximity to urban areas. But we think how wilderness is managed or rather, how wilderness is NOT managed for visitor needs is a major factor in why people are packed into a few over-used areas and not dispersed over the rest of wilderness. In coming months we hope to further document, develop and present our ideas on better managing wilderness for the wilderness visitor. Stay tuned.