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Social Science at the Boundary: Understanding Changing Human Relationships with Wilderness

Faculty: William Borrie
Student: Robert Dvorak 

CanoeSince the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964 wilderness managers have been charged with the challenging goals of protecting the resource while also providing appropriate and high quality recreation experiences across wild landscapes laden with diverse social and ecological values. Part of the responsibility of social scientists is to provide wilderness managers with information that can assist them in making difficult value-based decisions about how to achieve an appropriate balance between protection and use of these public lands. For more than 40 years wilderness researchers and managers have struggled to find relevant theories of human behavior and adapt them for use in wilderness management frameworks to better achieve a socially and ecologically acceptable balance.

This research project explores a relationship approach as a new focus for investigating wilderness recreation. By investigating the relationships individuals develop with specific wilderness areas over time, it may be possible for scientists and managers to understand the different components of a visitor’s relationship to wilderness that may change over time and the role management decisions play in facilitating, threatening or strengthening these relationships.

This research is part of a project initiated by the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute (located on the edge of the UM campus) that examines trends among visitors to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. While Bob is deeply involved in all aspects of the broader research project, his dissertation specifically explores the effect of social and environmental forces of change on wilderness relationships and experiences.