Bultena and Taves (1961) conducted pioneering wilderness social science in what was called at that time (1956 - 1958) the Superior Roadless Area. They investigated how visitors interpreted their visits. The researchers noted the important role of public opinion. The collective will of the people matters if public land administrators want to make decisions that are embraced by stakeholders. In the same region, Lucas (1964) studied recreationists’ perceptions of wilderness. The participants of that study characterized wilderness as: “primitive, uncivilized, rugged, wild, uncommercialized, [and] remote” (p. 23). Schomaker and Lime (1986) emphasized the importance of gathering feedback from wilderness recreationists to understand the roles that wilderness plays in people’s lives.
Appleyard’s 1979 paper linked environmental perceptions to sociopolitical structures. He defined a social symbol as a representation “of someone or some social group; when social meaning plays an influential role in relation to its other function” (p. 144). He further divested the concept into a) symbolic actions that convey social meanings and b) perceptions of the environment as a social symbol. In another highly influential work, Wilderness and the American Mind, Nash (2001, p. 1) suggested that wilderness “is so heavily freighted with meaning of a personal, symbolic, and changing kind as to resist easy definition.” The research team of McAvoy and Dustin (1989) emphasized the unique nature of wilderness claiming that in contemporary life, wilderness serves mainly a symbolic function.
Jacob and Schreyer (1980) classified four kinds of factors that influence conflicting outdoor recreation perspectives: activity style, resource specificity, mode of experience, and lifestyle tolerance. Activity style has to do with personal meanings that recreationists ascribe to activities. Resource specificity relates to the importance or amount of reverence a person associates with their involvement with a place. Mode of experience has to do with the degree of participant-landscape engagement. It ranges from unfocused appreciation of scenery to focused apprehension of and receptivity to perceptual stimuli. Lifestyle tolerance has to do with somebody’s willingness to share areas with members of other lifestyle groups. These foundational concepts are useful in classifying kinds of conflict. In a later chapter, I show how they apply to similar and different understandings of wild place meaning.
Burch (1984b) noted the sociopolitical aspect of public land issues. He claimed that the inclusion and exclusion of recreation user groups was more about conflicting cultural perspectives than scientific ones. He contended that matters of conflict are ambiguous and unlikely to be resolved by science. Research informs but does not make policy. Burch (1984a) also appealed to rhetoric for its capacity to find and use differences to unite people. “[R]hetoric deals with the source of unpredictability—love, hate, and the emotional forces of life; iconoclastic ideas; the emergence of new solutions for old problems” (p. 10). Rhetoric wields the power of language to induce cooperation among people through appeals to shared aspirations and understandings. It can be a means for resolving conflict in that it “enhances the differences so that unity is possible between those who are equally unique” (p. 19). Constituents hold similar and different understandings of wilderness areas. Knowledge of these understandings and the structures that shape them is important for public lands decision-makers who craft policy intended to effectively resonate throughout divergent constituencies. In a later chapter I will address the emerging role of environmental rhetoric and how certain outcomes of this study can strengthen that role.
Historical, cultural, and political processes are enfolded in the production meaning and value in the passage of time. The cyclical process of socially constructing place meaning evolves as “groups of people create shared meanings and understandings of a place … those shared meanings, in turn, structure actions in and with respect to those places” (Williams, 2000, p. 78). For Watson (2001, p. 64), the diversity of “ecological and human values (meanings) we derive from [wilderness] protection and [that] contribute to higher order personal and societal benefits are often in conflict.” He suggested that scholars “proactively study the values, meanings, expectations, and importance [that wilderness constituents] attach to the place” (p. 66).
Norton (1987) put wild places as emblematic of American cultural heritage. Cole (2005) argued for greater consideration and understanding of symbolic wilderness values. Above all else, wilderness “is a symbol of human restraint and humility” (p. 24). Schuster, Tarrant and Watson (2005, n.p.) cite the National Survey on Recreation and Environment #cite. More than 90 percent of respondents strongly or moderately agreed that “nature and wild lands are important symbols of American culture.” Gudmundsen and Loomis (2005) called wilderness a socio-political ideal that celebrates the aspirations of society such as self-realization and autonomy.
Schroeder (2007, p. 14) commented on the symbolic power of wilderness with its significance and meaning abundant in the referential totality of associations and representations. Landres and others (2008, p. 6) define wilderness character as “the combination of biophysical, experiential, and symbolic ideals” forming “a complex and subtle set of relationships among the land, its management, its users, and the meanings people associate with wilderness.” But, these “symbolic meanings of humility, restraint, and interdependence in how individuals and society view their relationship to nature” that stewards, recreationalists, and other stakeholders ascribe to wilderness haven’t been systematically reviewed. McCool (2008, p. 245) called for integrating symbolic values into recreation decision-making processes and frameworks to help clarify controversies. Stewart (2008) lamented the failed representations of place in public language that either lacks attunement to, or disregards the significance of lived experiences in the environment. Within the human dimensions of natural resources, scholars have noticed the symbolic role of wild places and identified the co-constitution of landscape meaning whereby people consciously and unconsciously share values.