Think Like the Scientist: Marla Emery
Meet the Scientist | About the Study

Dr. Emery is interested in using Global Information Systems (GIS) to conduct her research. Below is a Natural Inquirer article that details a study that uses GIS. Use the links to see an example of developing a testable question (introduction), planning to test your question (method), analyzing your data (results), and explaining it all (discussion).

View a full version of Wild and Free! 

Introduction | Method | Results | Discussion

Wild and Free!

Arial photo of house

Arial photo of house with grid overlay
Figure 1: The top photo is an aerial photo of a house.  In the photo below, a grid has been placed on the photo. Although this is not at the same scale as the research done in this study, this grid shows how small squares of land can be identified and characteristics of land within each square can be described. (Photo courtesy of Barrow County, Georgia).

wildness continuumFigure 2: The wildness continuum.

definitions of naturalness and freedom from human control
Figure 3: Definitions of naturalness and freedom from human control.

Six qualitites of wildness
Figure 4: Sources of information for each of the six qualities, and the measurement assigned to each quality by the scientists, for each of the 6-million-square kilometers. (Click image for larger version)

two different square kilos of land
Figure 5: Here is an example of two different square kilometers of land Square A shows a highway, a railroad track, a baseball diamond, a shopping center, houses, and a gas station There is a lot of grass, some bare ground, and some trees Square B shows a few houses and two roads, a lot of trees and grass, and a large man-made lake with a dam. Look at the rating guide in figure 2. Which square would get the highest overall rating? Remember, a higher rating indicates that the square kilometer would have higher wildness character.

Figure 6. National map showing wildness values. (Click map for larger version)

Figure 7. The median summed value representing wildness for three categories of land and water.


According to the scientists in this study, wildness is one of the central qualities of wilderness. To say that an area is wild in this sense, the scientists believed that it must have two qualities: (1) It must have the quality of naturalness, and (2) it must be free from the control of humans. Figure 1 describes the relationship of different types of land to these two qualities. Using this figure, you can compare how different types of land, from wilderness to cities and towns, are related to the qualities of naturalness and freedom from the control of humans. The scientists speculated that wilderness is more natural and freer from human control than other land in the United States. However, they did not know this for sure. Often, common sense or past learning tells us that something must be true. In science, this is sometimes called a hypothesis. Until scientific research is done to prove it, however, we cannot really say for sure. In this study, the scientists wanted to find out whether their belief that wilderness is more natural and freer from human control than other lands is really true.

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The scientists had to find a more specific way to define what was meant by how natural the land was and how free it was from human control. The information that would be collected had to be the same across all 16-million-square kilometers of the United States. To do this, the scientists had to define what they meant by naturalness and freedom from human control. Figure 1 shows how they defined these two qualities.

The scientists wanted to collect information on each of these six qualities for all 16-million-square kilometers of U.S. lands and waters. The scientists did not have the time or the money to collect their own information. Instead, they had to find existing sources of information. The existing information also had to be attached to a specific place in the United States, and it had to be measurable (figure 2). Ultimately, the scientists would combine the six pieces of information for each of the 16-million-square kilometers in the United States.

Notice that for every square kilometer, the scientists assigned a value between 1 and 5 for each of the six qualities listed above. Then, the six values were summed. This gave one value for each of the 16-million square kilometers of land and water in the United States (figure 3).

The scientists then applied the summed value to each of the 16-million-square kilometers. They ended up with a single value for each square kilometer in the United States. Since they were using a GIS, the next step was to create a map. For each of the final values, they assigned a color that would be applied to the square kilometer. Remember that each square kilometer was located somewhere unique in the United States. When the map was created by placing all of the square kilometers together, the scientists could see which areas of the United States were less wild and which were more wild

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When they first looked at their map, the scientists were surprised at what they saw (figure 6). In the East, only small patches of land or water had high values of wildness. These lands were surrounded by large areas of land with a low wildness value.

In the West, the opposite was true. There were small patches of land with a low wildness value, surrounded by large areas with a high wildness value.

The scientists divided all of the Nation’s land and water into three categories. These categories were: (1) Federal wilderness, (2) Federal nonwilderness, and (3) non- Federal land. Federal land is land owned by all of the citizens and managed for the citizens by the Federal Government. Federal wilderness is Federal land protected from human development. Federal nonwilderness is mostly large natural areas of undeveloped or lightly developed land. They include national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, national grasslands, and other natural land managed by the Federal Government. Non-Federal land is everything else, including cities, towns, houses, buildings, yards, roads, reservoirs, farms, State parks, and private forest land. The median summed value for each of these categories is given in figure 7.

The scientists found that while most wilderness has a high wildness value, some wilderness has values lower than they expected. These were the wildernesses located close to highly developed areas such as cities. Therefore, wilderness is not always the wildest area. It is also area that provides some degree of wildness, especially when it is located close to highly developed areas of the United States.

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Wilderness has the highest wildness value of all lands in the United States. This shows that wilderness protects the quality of wildness, ensuring that some lands remain truly wild in the United States. Federal lands in general also have a high quality of wildness. Compared with non-Federal land, Federal land is more natural and freer from human control. Wilderness is the most natural of all lands and is the freest from human control.

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