This article reports a survey of 196 river managers in seven states across the USA assessing their perceptions of in-stream wood. This survey followed corresponding questionnaires given to undergraduate students representing non-expert views in the same states and in 10 countries around the world. Whereas most students registered predominantly negative views of in-stream wood (i.e. not aesthetically pleasing, dangerous and needing improvement), American managers perceive rivers with wood as significantly more aesthetically pleasing, less dangerous and needing less improvement than rivers without wood. These views were consistent across different types of managers (conservation, fisheries, forestry, recreation and water), suggesting that because of education, training and field experience beyond the undergraduate degree, managers gain more positive views of in-stream wood. Analysis of manager responses grouped by years in the profession suggests that professional experience or information within professional networks plays a role. As years worked in the profession increase, managers' responses to photos with and without wood became significantly different, showing sharper discernment in viewing in-stream wood more positively. We conceptualize evolving management strategies involving wood in American rivers as a series of iterative states within changing human–landscape systems produced by interacting impacts and feedbacks. In this example application, the Interactive, Integrative, and Iterative (III) Framework for Human Landscape Change highlights the importance of public education and policy as necessary feedback linkages to close the gap between people's perceptions of wood and scientific advances that recognize the significant role of wood in rivers. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.