Attitudes towards Wilderness and Public Demands on Wilderness Areas

Nicole Bauer

Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, Section Landscape and Society


In recent years the general conditions for land use in Switzerland for agri­culture and forestry have changed as less area is needed for farming. Pri­mary production is no longer profitable and state subsidies have been re­duced. This means that decisions will have to be made about whether to abandon the cultivation of many areas of land now used for agriculture and forestry. In addition, some nature conservation organisations are lobbying to stop many areas of land from being used for agriculture and forestry and to have them designated as conservation areas.

As a result of these developments, wilderness and its spread have been the subject of debate in Switzerland for some years now. The main focus of discussion has not, however, been primary wilderness, i. e. the state that prevails when there has never been any visible human intervention. Rather the focus has been much more on the spread of secondary wilderness, which develops when the controlling human interventions are discontinued and the land returns to wilderness. The debate has involved political deci­sion makers, nature conservation organisations, and local stakeholders. To ensure that decisions about the future development of the landscape are also carried by the general public, it is important to discover the basis of the public’s support for, or its opposition to, wilderness and its spread. What is involved besides or in addition to expert knowledge, and what conceptions of wilderness and wilderness areas do people have?

What do we know?

There have been an increasing number of papers and conferences on the topic of wilderness in recent years, which indicates that debates about wil-

Kowarik I, Korner S (eds) Wild Urban Woodlands.

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2005, pp 47-66

demess are not confined to Switzerland. Researchers and representatives with different disciplinary backgrounds from state and local nature conser­vation offices have met to discuss the terms “wilderness” (Wildnis) and “wilderness spread” (Verwilderung: Trommer 1997; Broggi 1999), and the opportunities which derelict land areas present as space for nature to de­velop free from human influence.

Research on the relationship between humans and nature, on perceptions of nature and how people experience it has a long tradition in the social sciences. In this paper it will only be possible to elucidate a few studies we believe to be particularly relevant to this investigation.

Kellert (1980) distinguishes, on the basis of empirical research, nine types of attitudes people have towards nature:

• the utilitarian type, which views nature in terms of its material value

• the naturalistic type, which regards nature with wonder and awe

• the ecological-scientific type, which has a need to investigate nature systematically

• the aesthetic type, which considers the beauty of nature to be paramount

• the symbolic type, which conceives nature as a source of symbols and as a means for improving communication

• the humanistic type, which feels emotionally connected with nature, particularly with large vertebrates

• the moralistic type, which feels responsible for nature

• the domineering type, which wants to master the natural world com­pletely

• the negative type, which views nature with fear and aversion

In this typology the concepts of biophobia and biophilia are clearly ap­parent. Biophobia is the tendency for people to be afraid of animals and natural states and to want to avoid them, as these have, in the past, threat­ened humans (Ulrich 1993). Biophobia is thought to have a genetic basis and is assigned by Kellert to the negative type. Biophilia, which is the complement to biophobia, is the tendency for people to prefer nature and the natural environment to the human-made, i. e. constructed, environment (Wilson 1993). According to Wilson, biophilia is a genetic adaptation to natural environments that gives humans better survival chances. Kellert’s (1980) naturalistic type provides a particularly clear description of this biophile attitude. These two tendencies probably also play important roles in describing other attitudes toward nature.

In addition to this typology, which describes general attitudes towards nature, this literature survey focuses mostly on empirical studies that have considered wilderness as a special kind of nature. These can be divided into studies that (1) record general attitudes to wilderness and phenomena having to do with the spread of wilderness, and (2) analyse people’s mo­tives for using wilderness areas and what they need and expect to find there.

Many of the studies we refer to here have been carried out in the United States where, it should be noted, “wilderness” has had a different history to that of “wilderness” in Europe. In Europe, people have tended to under­stand “wilderness” to mean either fallow land or wasteland, which fitted in with the classical challenge of making “wilderness” useful for humans (Trommer 1997). On the continent of America, European settlers’ partial conquest of the wild took place at the same time as industrialisation, and as a result of urban nostalgia, “wilderness” came to represent a space in marked contrast with the urban, civilized world (Stremlow and Sidler 2002). Since the American Revolution, “wilderness” has come to be asso­ciated with the notion of unity with nature.

The first type of study, in which people’s general attitudes towards wil­derness are recorded independently of whether or not they are visitors to a particular area, is rare. Lutz et al. (1999) found, in a questionnaire survey carried out in Canada, that most respondents from both urban and rural ar­eas favoured protecting wilderness areas and viewed wilderness quite posi­tively. But when they were asked to evaluate pictures of landscapes ac­cording to their “level of wilderness”, it became clear that town and country dwellers had rather different conceptions of wilderness. Rural re­spondents graded the pictures as much less “wild” than the urban respon­dents did.

There have also been only a few studies of attitudes regarding previ­ously cultivated or tended areas becoming wild. This may be because the spread of wilderness is a relatively new phenomenon that has only recently begun to have an impact as land use for agriculture and forestry has de­clined. Studies that focus on the spontaneous reforestation of derelict land are relevant here as this is an important aspect of secondary wilderness. Hunziker (1995, 2000) came to the conclusion that people prefer some natural reforestation on fallow land to having it all traditionally cultivated, but at the same time, they do not like to see reforestation covering exten­sive areas.

Several studies that focus on people’s motives for using wilderness and that were carried out in designated wilderness areas have come up with two rather similar findings: When people join wilderness excursions, the social aspect of being in a group is apparently not an important factor in motivating their participation. On the other hand, the aesthetic quality of a wilderness adventure, i. e. out in the wild, is the most important motive for visiting a wilderness area (Rossman and Ulehla 1977; Brown and Haas 1980; Borrie and Roggenbuck 2001).

Besides the research on people’s motives for visiting wilderness areas, a variety of investigations have also been carried out to discover the profiles of the users of these areas in order to adapt the wilderness better to their needs. The aspect that generates the most satisfaction, according to Borrie and Roggenbuck (2001), is having the opportunity to observe wild ani­mals. What people find dissatisfying, on the other hand, is the presence of rubbish, damaged trees and many other visitors.

Cole (2001) compared visitors on day trips with those who stayed over­night. He found no differences between the two groups in how they evalu­ated wilderness and wilderness areas. The two groups had had comparable previous experience in such areas. Day-trippers, however, seemed less in­terested in spending time in the wilderness and seemed to make less use of wilderness areas in organising their leisure activities. Other studies have evaluated the places where visitors can stay overnight in wilderness areas to determine what perceptible influence they have on the surrounding vegetation (Farrell et al. 2001). The studies referred to here were carried out in the United States, which means they cannot be compared directly with developments in central Europe where both the extent and history of wilderness areas are very different.

In conclusion, there are many studies of people’s experience with nature in designated wilderness areas, but only a few studies of attitudes to the spread of wilderness into previously cultivated and exploited areas or of users’ wishes in the rather small areas in which wilderness has spread in Europe.

Updated: October 2, 2015 — 4:21 pm