While the concept of wilderness in the American landscape may be traced to the mid-19th century, it was not until 1964 that formal, Congressional protection began. The resulting National Wilderness Preservation System, encompassing approximately 95 million acres, is not only much larger than originally envisioned but is embedded in a complex and everchanging social-cultural milieu. In the 19th century, wilderness was pretty but something that was not engaged directly. In the mid-20st century, wilderness was still thought to be pretty, but as a backdrop for primitive recreation. As we prepare to enter the 21st century, we now see wilderness as a sometimes ugly and dangerous place, a location where the power of natural processes dominates the landscape. Such changing definitions of wilderness hold important implications for management of fire, for the appropriateness of any management technique is determined by social definitions of the resource and how to protect it. Management of fire represents a class of complex environmental problems confronting postindustrial America where the needs of an administrative-technocratic state to solve the problem clash with the increased interest in public access to government decision making. An interactive approach to decision making, where fire managers work with the public to determine appropriate and effective management programs, ensures that important questions are asked and the necessary political support for implementation is achieved.