In the early to mid-1900s, USDA Forest Service (USFS) fire policy focused on fire suppression and control, guiding decisions to extinguish all fires as soon as possine after detection. In 1971, however, USFS fire suppression policy was modified for wilderness areas, allowing fire ignited naturally by lightning to burn under prescribed conditions. The first of these "prescribed natural fires" (currently recognized in policy as "wildland fire use fires") on USFS land occurred in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in 1972 (Parsons & Landres, 1998). Later, an official change in USFS fire policy (USDA FS, 1978) recognized the use of wildland fire as a land management tool with potential resource benefits across USFS lands. This policy change made it possible for lightning-ignited fires, as well as management-ignited fires, to burn under prescribed conditions on more of the federal land base. However, the use of fire within wilderness remained limited to lightning-ignited fires until further policy revision in 1985 (USDA FS, 1985).
The social and ecological complexity of implementing management-ignited fires (now recognized in policy as "prescribed fires") in wilderness has received recent attention in the literature. For example, although prescribed fires in wilderness are allowed under certain conditions, Parsons (2000) suggests they are often viewed as inappropriate human manipulations that detract from the wild or untrammeled character of wilderness. At the same time, there is increasing recognition of the ecological importance of prescribed fires when used as a management tool to restore and maintain natural conditions in wilderness (Parsons & Landres, 1998). Thus, the use of prescribed fires in wilderness is a management dilemma that involves tradeoffs between seemingly competing wilderness values, such as naturalness and wildness (Landres, Brunson, Merigliano, Sydoriak, & Morton, 2000). Non-wilderness concerns must also be considered by managers that include threats to private property, infrastructure, and timber of commercial value at the interface between wild lands and urban areas (Shindler, 2007).
The shift from total suppression to use of wildland fire in wilderness created a need for knowledge about the public's attitudes towards wilderness fire management on USFS lands (e.g., Love & Watson, 1992; Lucas, 1980; Lucas, 1985; Watson, Hendee, & Zaglauer, 1996). A number of studies of recreation visitors to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness examined attitudes towards potential use of management-ignited fires in wilderness. Stankey (1976) found in 1971 that suppression policies were highly acceptable to the visitors sampled, with higher levels of knowledge about the role of fire in the ecosystem being related to acceptance of fires to burn in wilderness. In a later Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness visitor study, McCool & Stankey (1986) then found rising levels of visitor knowledge about the role of fire and a correlation of that knowledge with increasing acceptance of the policy to allow fire use in wilderness. Nearly half of the 1984 sample of visitors believed that management-ignited fires would be beneficial. In an open-ended follow-up question, visitors perceived benefits such as reduced fire hazards, improved wildlife habitat and restoration of fire to its natural role. A similar trend study of visitors to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex found the proportion of visitors who indicated that natural forest fires were desirable increased from 26% in 1970 to 49% in 1982 (Stankey, 1976; McCool & Stankey, 1986).
The purpose of this current research note is to further our understanding of recreation visitor attitudes towards prescribed fires in wilderness using data collected in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. This 2004 study was conducted primarily to replicate previous visitor studies in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex (Lucas, 1980; Lucas, 1985), but it also incorporated an analysis of visitors' attitudes towards prescribed fires in the wilderness following the approach McCool and Stankey (1986) had used to understand visitors' attitudes towards natural fires in wilderness. …