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Monday's Montanan: UM professor probes ties to wilderness

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For Bill Borrie, a walk in the woods isn’t just a getaway. It’s the basis of a career.

“When I look at wilderness, which is now my specialty, it's more than just having a fun time in wilderness,” the University of Montana professor of park and recreation management explained. “It’s becoming American.”

Since Congress created the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964, he noted, it’s grown from about 9 million acres to roughly 110 million.

“So Congress has said we still want wilderness, we still need wilderness in this country and I think if we look around the world folks see that as uniquely American and an essential part of America and who Americans are, that we had the foresight to set these areas and lands aside.”

Borrie’s path to studying wilderness, and its place in America’s psyche, began in his native Australia, where he studied forestry as an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne.

Like America, he said “Australia is also somewhat of a colonial culture and it's also a very outdoor-oriented culture.” But in the early days of his career, he found limits in studying that culture.

“In those days,” he recalled, “there was a fairly long lag time between when the ideas were hatched and the insights were gained and when I was getting to read it in Australia, and so I wanted to be a part of those discussions and contribute to those discussions, and so came over here to do my Ph.D. [at Virginia Tech], and was fortunate enough to get the one job that I really wanted, which was here.”

With Montana’s vast public and protected lands, and the wide range of scientific, sociological and economic efforts to study them on its flagship campus, “this is the place to be” for studying outdoors and recreation management.

Since he arrived at UM in 1995, Borrie’s scholarship has ranged from winter visitation at Yellowstone National Park, to fire and fuels management in Bitterroot National Forest, to the design of the visitor experience at Disney theme parks.

But his prime interest is what he calls “Big-W Wilderness:” the 110 million acres protected from lasting human presence under the National Wilderness Preservation System, where, as described by the Act, “man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

“Wilderness is a place where we're not in charge, where we take wilderness on wilderness's terms, and it is not full of infrastructure for our comfort and convenience. It's primitive, it's primeval, nature is in control.”

As he sees it, “our role as researchers is to help managers assess, are they doing what Congress told them is the purpose of wilderness, and so assessing the quality of their experiences.”

He’s analyzed several aspects of those experiences, including how they’ve been shaped by technology, LGBTQ travelers’ experiences of wilderness, and how they change over the course of the wilderness experience.

Earlier this month, the Academy of Leisure Sciences — the most prominent association in this brand of academia — acknowledged Borrie’s work by electing him as a fellow.

“This is a huge honor for Bill and one that is exceptionally well-deserved,” said Tom DeLuca, dean of UM’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry, in a press release. “Bill follows in the footsteps of some of the very best in the field.”

“Most research professions have an academy like this,” Borrie explained. “When a person reaches a stage in their career when they make significant contributions and have demonstrated their commitment to scholarship and to the profession, this is an honor which is granted to them.”

The expectation, he said, “is that you will continue to play that high profile role,” and serve as a mentor to others.

Asked what projects he was working on next, Borrie said with a laugh, “This is where it gets technical and boring.”

Biologists, social scientists, economists and philosophers, he explained, all “look at value, environmental value differently... and so I'm looking at how we can get those different disciplines to work together so that the different value systems inform one another.”

“Looking forward I think that's what we need to sort out.”

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