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12. Planning for Small Forest Landscapes: Facilitating the Connection between People and Nature
Forests are a vital part of Northwest landscapes. Regardless of the size of an individual holding or whether it is private or public, each part of the land is integrated with ever larger ecosystems. To perpetuate and enhance the biological, social, cultural, and economic values of forest ecosystems, we must be stewards of each part (Washington State University Extension, 2006, p. 2).
A significant amount (35%) of forestland in the United States is held by a diverse group of people known collectively as family forest owners. These include families, individuals, trusts, estates, family partnerships, and other unincorporated groups of individuals (Butler, 2008; Bengston, Asah, & Butler, 2011; Creighton & Bumgartner, 2004; Zhang, Liao, Butler, & Schelhas, 2009). Given the importance of family-owned forests for people and the environment, universities, public agencies, and environmental organizations throughout the United States offer stewardship workshops and publish educational brochures to teach and encourage sustainable forest management. Despite these efforts, only a small percentage (4%) of family forest owners have written forest management plans (Butler, 2008), raising concerns about whether these forests are being managed sustainably (Butler, 2008).
While surveys reveal that family forest owners own forestland for many reasons including recreation, investment, timber, family legacy, wildlife, and scenery, to name a few (Butler, 2008; Bengston et al., 2011), most materials and stewardship workshops currently available focus primarily on timber management and forest health and provide little information about managing for other benefits. This suggested that there may be an underutilized opportunity to engage family forest owners by speaking to their range of interests.
Our research is meant to help address this gap. More specifically, our intention is to develop strategies for engaging family forest owners in a more holistic way to help them improve the health of their forests while also enhancing the scenic, recreational, and other cultural amenities of their properties such that when people interact with their land, the owners will come away all the better for owning it and for spending time in it.
Learning from Landowners
To start, we held two focus groups with family forest owners to present a variety of design and planning approaches to private forestland that we adapted from the literature about restoration, visual preference, design, and ecological planning. The forest owners had participated in stewardship workshops through Washington State University’s King County Extension, and we wanted to gauge their interest in materials that would address cultural amenities.
The focus groups provided important insights that redirected our approach to the project. First, the forest owners called our attention to the importance of grounding educational materials in local knowledge; as Kearney (Chapter 16) suggests, it is important “to know where they’re at.” Second, while the literature provided many insights into the historical relationship between people and nature, it does not offer specific knowledge about how family forest owners build a relationship with their land.
The Reasonable Person Model (RPM) offers a useful framework for exploring the intrinsic processes through which people gain knowledge and form their identity. Unlike the Rational or Economic Man Model, which posits that people simply learn information that is presented to them, RPM considers the importance of personal exploration and discovery, context, and motivation by asking what sorts of environments facilitate knowledge-seeking behavior and, more generally, bring out the best in people (Basu & Kaplan, Chapter 1; S. Kaplan & Kaplan, 2009;). In thinking about sustainable forest management, it might be important to ask how landowners come to feel attached to their land and see themselves as stewards of it and how this process can serve to enrich the relationship between people and nature.
As a result, we decided to conduct a series of interviews with Pacific Northwest family forest owners on-site, and in the presence of nature, to learn and observe how individuals with small family forests see their land, what excites them about it, and how they interact with it. In essence, we wanted to understand how family forest owners get to know their property, what they come to know, and how they sustain their relationship to their land over time. To gain insight into the process of model building itself, we organized interview topics around the domains of RPM to include model building, being effective, and meaningful action (Table 12.1).
Model Building: Making sense of things
Effectiveness: Sense of competence
Meaningful action: The need to make a difference
We conducted sixteen interviews with twenty-three family forest owners in and around King County. The interviews were transcribed and analyzed to highlight core motivations and values and to explore how these are manifested in the way small forest landowners interact with and manage their land. While these experiences varied widely, the interviews showed numerous similarities in terms of the meaning that the land held for the owners, their fears and pleasures, and their ways of interacting with their property. We focus here only on a subset of our many findings, organized around themes that recurred across many of the interviews.
Forming a Vision
Model building seemed to happen at multiple scales, combining general concepts and more situational narratives that revealed the way small forest landowners struggled to make sense of everyday experiences. One couple described how their vision of their property changed:
Husband: [My vision] was more park-like, and that got rejected quickly and so I had to accept that I wasn’t going to have a park because [my wife] liked the woods—liked to have all the trees and bushes and everything.
Wife: It might have been not so much about wanting to live in the woods as not wanting to maintain five groomed acres.
Husband: . . . and so I’ve been finding the rhododendrons in the wild and adding to the wild.
This exchange seems to describe a successful process of coming to terms with the incompatibilities between what they thought they would have and what they actually found, adapting to a new understanding and recasting it into a revised vision of “rhododendrons in the wild.” As Basu (Chapter 6) writes, “Exploring a concept in different ways can be a source of both multiplicity and variety.” In this example the value of “scenic beauty” that appears as a fixed category on many landowner surveys is continually negotiated and reframed through an ongoing process of trial and adaptation.
Exploring Their Property
The excitement of exploration and discovery in getting to know their property was a common theme. One landowner described the first months on his property:
I couldn’t stop going out there. The sense for me was a sense of discovery. I was obsessed with it. I wanted to explore every place and look at everything. And it was . . . being a kid and just having that sense of wonder . . . and, you know, finding buried treasure.
In some cases the experience of getting to know their property translated into designing trails (Figure 12.1). Clearly these were intended not only for their own enjoyment but also for sharing with their guests. One couple described how they went about designing a trail system:
It’s like how many curves should be in the trail and what sorts of things are interesting. . . . We love the idea of little niches hidden in the forest that people don’t necessarily know about. . . . When our friends come over they always go for a little wander. And we want them to go for a wander and come across a martini deck . . . and we like the idea of not making it too obvious where these things are and people just wander around and discover things by themselves, which I think is kind of fun.
These excerpts reveal how the desire to build, extend, and share one’s mental maps can serve as a powerful motivator for exploration. However, not everyone was immediately inclined to explore their forest. Duvall (Chapter 20) discusses how “feelings of curiosity and interest arise in situations where individuals experience both high novelty and a high potential for making sense,” and he goes on to describe a series of structured exercises to help people engage with their surroundings. Similarly, one forest owner who had lived on his property for approximately eighteen years before taking a stewardship workshop said, “As I recall, I never walked very much of the property until I went to the forestry class.” He and his wife go on to describe how being asked to conduct a survey instilled in them a desire to learn about their forest that has kept them engaged ever since. One of them added: “I was amazed at how much flora and fauna there are once you start knowing what you’re looking at. When they started talking about diversity, I said, ‘my, our property is incredibly diverse, just the four and a half acres.’”
While some exploration was fun for the landowners, it could also be otherwise. One forest owner described getting completely lost on his property:
[On] my first day here as I went out . . . it was dusk and I went out and I started walking on our property. . . . And we didn’t know the area at all. And then as I started to walk back it was getting really dark. And there were trees, I don’t how to explain, but depth of light, you know, logs had fallen, trees that had big holes, you almost had to crawl. I couldn’t see a thing, so I kept walking and walking where I felt it was the safest, ‘cause I wasn’t sure. I actually got lost, I didn’t know where I was. . . . And so I finally came up to someone’s house and knocked on their door and said, “I just moved here, I have no idea where I am. Where’s my house?” They said, “It’s right there.” . . . And I’m sure they still talk about the idiot that got lost in his own backyard.
The lack of visual access and the inability to see the ground made it difficult to form a clear mental image and become oriented. One forest owner who had a very dense forest that was difficult to see through, much less walk through, couldn’t think of any special places on his property at first, but then he remembered that he had found a small boulder on higher ground in an area with bigger trees and less brush from which he could glimpse a lake in the valley below, the one place that provided him with a larger perspective. He described a particularly bad day of trying to walk around his property and wanting to build some trails to provide access:
Yesterday I was just in the woods trippin’ and gettin’ sliced up and it wasn’t fun. I mean if you could have heard me . . . and so that’s partly why I’d like to have some trails in here. Where . . . somebody could just walk through and it wouldn’t be a battle to, you know, blood.
The connection between gaining access and gaining new perspectives was expressed by another forest owner who undertook a multiyear project to remove ivy from his property:
[You] just couldn’t even see the trees. You walked by them and suddenly when the ivy’s gone you can see this magnificent tree and that would be the discovery. . . . That you saw it for the first time. It wasn’t like the tree was completely hidden, but your eye kind of just went to the ivy. And you just couldn’t see anything beyond it. . . . But when you open these spaces, you go, “Oh, there it is.” . . . [A]ll of a sudden you can stop, then you look up and you go, “Oh, my God, it’s a whole different perspective.”
This parallels the research findings that people tend to dislike vast undifferentiated or dense impenetrable landscapes, preferring instead scenes that offer opportunities for exploration and orientation with scalable elements, winding paths, and interconnected regions layered in depth (R. Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). Similarly, Lynch (1960) found that paths, landmarks, edges, and zones figured strongly in people’s mental maps of cities.
Nature as a Guide
Editors’ Comment: Relinquishing control could also be thought of as participating in a natural process.
Many forest owners responded to nature’s wildness by learning to relinquish control and adopting an experimental attitude, learning from trial and error, similar to the culture of experimentation described by Bardwell (Chapter 7) and Gallagher (Chapter 8). One landowner talked of a patch of maples the family wanted to preserve and said “but nature had other ideas” when the maples fell over due to wet and unstable soils. One couple described how, over time, they have adjusted their approach to gardening:
So over time [we] learned that gardening is different in the woods. . . . So we’ve changed our mind from wanting to grow food to wanting to grow trees, and ferns, and things that are native. And the native species tend to be the ones that the deer aren’t so interested in demolishing anyway. That’s how they became native species. And they like this environment . . . so you’re not fighting that. . . . It’s one of the things we learned.
Rather than imposing a preconceived trail design on the landscapes, most forest owners allowed themselves to be led by the land, following deer paths or spaces in the forest and enhancing them. One forest owner said, “So most of the trails are naturally dictated, and I just followed the natural flow.” Often the trail was made along the path of least resistance:
I can’t tell you why I made the path through here. There was actually no path and I just . . . kind of saw where maybe the least stuff was. . . . It was maybe a little less thick here. . . . It just seemed a little clearer over here.
By walking with the landowners, we learned the extent to which their exploration was motivated not just by discovering new things but also by the challenge of becoming oriented and making their forest legible through a heightened ability to perceive and remember subtle details and patterns. The forest owners seemed to enjoy the spontaneity of being in the moment combined with the satisfaction of deepening their understanding, a tension between uncertainty and clarity that Ivancich (Chapter 5) argues is fundamental to engaging in model building.
Being a Steward
In working on their land, many forest owners developed a strong relationship with nature. Several forest owners said that they were not just owners but stewards. One described her role in maternal terms:
I take it on as my job to protect these trees that I love and [give] them the opportunity to reach maturity, to fall down, and if they’re going to fall down, to leave them alone.
Others talked of stewardship in more technical terms, such as “to maximize the future timber harvest we want tall trees, but we also want fat trees.” Often abstract or utilitarian goals quickly became more personal. After attending the stewardship workshops to learn about tax incentives, one forest owner said:
My whole attitude and outlook toward the place changed to be more of a steward than an animal. . . . a caretaker rather than a user and abuser . . . So, I guess our main focus is shifted from just kind of living here to maintaining the health of the forest and the environment, our environment.
This alludes to the strongly personal nature of stewarding a forest that one is living in, since the forest environment is also their own environment. One forest owner spoke of her forest as providing a “nourishing home floor.” Another described the benefits of pulling ivy for both himself and the forest: “In pulling ivy there was a real sense, not just of freeing the forest, but freeing ourselves to walk and enjoy it in there.”
Rather than simply approaching forest health as a matter of learning and applying scientifically grounded forest management prescriptions, these interviews revealed the importance of also attending to personal needs and growth, which as Basu (Chapter 6) discusses is an important aspect of meaningful action. For one forest owner, learning about forest health through a stewardship class helped him cope with his initial bad impressions of his property, reframe his vision, and begin making improvements. He described how his first impressions of the overgrown, “creepy,” and unhealthy-seeming landscape became demystified when he learned what was causing the trees to look creepy (Figure 12.2). He explains:
There’s tons of mistletoe here. . . . I guess there are different varieties. But it actually is a parasitic plant and the variety that grows here, it grows in higher branches and then it makes what they call Witches, Broom [where] an area of the tree will just shoot out way too many branches. And it’s almost a tumor in a way; it’s like a cancer. It’s overgrowing and the mistletoe as a parasite makes it do that and then that gets unhealthy.
This increased understanding led to new directions about how to care for the land:
I’ve taken on a much bigger role in managing it . . . getting it thinned out and getting it healthy. . . . Just more of a forestry owner and not just a piece of land for a campsite. . . . So I just wanted to de-spookify, de-creepify it. ‘Cause it just was not inviting.
Nearly all of the forest owners talked about feeling restored by working and living on their land. A number spoke about their land as a refuge or sanctuary. One described the importance of finding quiet and beauty in her garden after her stressful job working in a psychiatric intensive care unit. Another described feeling “oxygenated” every time he goes out to work in his forest and went on to explain: “Being in nature just affects me in a positive way. And the longer I’m out here, the better it is, and it’s just important for my well-being . . . just calms me down.” A number of participants spoke of feeling a spiritual connection to something larger and a sense of a different place:
There’s definitely something spiritual. Kind of a connection to something larger. . . . That it’s larger than just my ordinary life. . . . It’s feeling connected to something really special, and meaningful, and thinking there’s more than just what I’m usually immersed in.
Another spoke about the forest connecting him to a larger time continuum:
With the forest there’s this sense, because some of the trees are so old in there, there’s this whole sense of stretching time both forward and backward knowing that these trees were here before . . . we were even alive, and knowing that hopefully . . . they’ll be there after we’re gone.
Many forest owners also delighted in the forest’s changeability, taking great joy in observing the light, colors, textures, and wildlife. One describes her enjoyment of the way certain greens in the understory pop out as she walks (Figure 12.3):
It’s constantly changing . . . when I think about the forest I can never believe how much the understory seems lit up even when there’s no real light in there. . . . They kind of get this neon green thing going.
Being surprised by nature gave many forest owners a sense of wonder in having borne witness to something special and mysterious. One couple described walking out after a frightening windstorm to survey the damage and coming across an upturned cottonwood glowing with bioluminescence. Another described often encountering an owl when she comes home at night:
One of my favorite things is when I come home at night I’ll drive down the driveway and I’ll turn around the corner and it illuminates the kind of cleared driveway area down below. And so the owl, who perches right there in that wetland, watches as the light illuminates everything. And then will just swoop down right in front of the car and give you a heart attack. . . . It’s shocking every time it happens. And [it’s] just electrifying.
These stories echo Attention Restoration Theory (R. Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Sullivan, Chapter 4), which posits that nature is important for people’s well-being and their ability to recover from mental fatigue by inviting them to become quietly fascinated or enter another world that provides a sense of extent and being away.
Forming an Attachment
Love-hate relationships about projects on their forests were not uncommon among forest owners. When asked what they would miss if they were to leave their land, nearly all said that they would miss the work, and when asked what they would not miss, nearly all answered, with a small laugh, “the work.” Taking care of their land, stewarding it, led to a host of opportunities. Several participants had stories of the physically demanding aspects of the projects. At the same time, however, the projects they undertook and the struggles they experienced made the place their own. Many participants reflected on feeling a tremendous attachment to their own land, a sense of specialness. One forest owner said:
The term that comes to mind is sacred space for me, absolutely. It’s where I feel present, it’s where I feel grounded; I can’t imagine a day not getting up and working in the garden. It’s a way for me to be creative as well.
The attachment was to the land as a whole as well as to special places on their property, marked by features that captured their imagination. One couple showed me a valley with moss-covered trees that they call “Shangri-La.” Another described how she approaches gardening like painting, working with colors and textures and fragrances. Memory also played an important role in attaching meaning to places. One forest owner created a little “secret garden” for herself, inspired by her favorite childhood book. Another planted trees in memory of friends and family. As we walked and he was pointing to the different trees he had planted, he pointed to one he had planted to mark the date that his wife first came to this country and then proceeded to tell me the story of how they met in France when he was in the military and how he had proposed to her and how she had come to live with him in the United States. This reflects Casey’s (1976, 1987, 2009) assertion that creative association, memory, and the imagination provide a sense of emplacement by embedding a place with meaning.
Many forest owners also talked about sharing their property with their friends and family, hosting parties and family gatherings. One talked about teaching his grandson how to tell if a tree is a hemlock, and many talked about how much their kids and grandkids enjoy chopping firewood and about wanting to leave their land as a legacy to their kids.
Next Steps: Strategies for Engaging Forest Owners
Our initial idea for engaging forest owners in a holistic way was somewhat prescriptive, providing landscape planning and design guidelines while assuming the role of expert. Through the interviews it became clear that living and working in the forest was not about obtaining an end result but was really about a living experience, one where everyone was an expert at various stages of development. As one forest owner put it, “For me part of the enjoyment is not just the end result . . . it’s fun building stuff.”
We found that forest owners were most engaged in exploratory tasks, which as RPM posits are inherently motivating but do not necessarily have an end point in mind. Learning was not just about the acquisition and application of knowledge, but similar to Thoreau’s (2000) insistence that people require opportunities to exercise their ingenuity, the landowners in this study delighted in the opportunity to exercise their creativity and intelligence and develop their perceptual, observational, and analytic abilities. In essence, the projects that the landowners undertook were meaningful in large part because they enabled the landowners to build, extend, and share their mental models both of the forest and of themselves and their communities.
Editors’ Comment: These series of exercises and the features described below constitute a supportive environment.
As a result, our own mental model for designing ways to engage landowners both through workshops and accompanying printed materials has expanded and changed. Similar to Duvall’s (Chapter 20) participatory engagement plans, our goal would be to facilitate model building through a series of discovery exercises that would be organized around the following themes:
Exploring the Forest
Drawing from descriptions of people’s first interactions with their land, discovery exercises might encourage landowners to walk their properties identifying plants and animals, finding water, observing changes in topography and soil conditions, looking for artifacts and curiosities, paying attention to personal associations and the senses, and noting changes in light, sound, humidity, color, texture, and fragrance. By learning about the forest, they would also learn about themselves and what interests them. Combining A. Kaplan’s (Chapter 17) use of photographs with Kearney’s (Chapter 16) use of 3CM suggests a possible approach to helping people visualize their mental models of their forest by encouraging landowners to take pictures or make sketches and organize them into themes.
Crafting Small Experiments
Working on projects seemed to be pivotal in shaping the landowners’ relationship to their land. Rather than developing and attempting to implement a big plan, forest owners talked about the need to stay adaptable and delighted in their sense of freedom and spontaneity. One forest owner said, “There was never any big vision. It’s all little pieces of vision.”
RPM provides a useful framework for developing a more intrinsically motivated, process-oriented approach to planning, with its emphasis on model building through small experiments that allow people to figure things out as they go. Rather than asking forest owners to develop a management plan, as many stewardship workshops do, engagement exercises might focus on experimental projects that could serve multiple personal and ecological goals, such as removing noxious weeds to open up the forest, encouraging forest owners to take small steps, observe the results, and adapt their course.
Sharing the Forest
The forest owners were clearly excited to tell us about their land and even more enthusiastic to show it to us. This suggests that developing opportunities through which forest owners can share their mental models would be particularly meaningful. The forest was used by many as a social setting through which they developed relationships with neighbors, maintained ties with family and friends, and developed projects such as building trails and niches for parties or planting trees with grandchildren, helping to strengthen their ties to the land and others. Workshops, tours, and interactive web-based forums could also provide supportive environments for sharing experiences, showing off projects, and asking questions.
Embracing the Dynamics of Nature
People’s relationship to nature is complex and dynamic. Sustainability is less about reaching a state of equilibrium than it is something that must be continually negotiated through little experiments, with forest owners making changes to their land and these in turn leading to changes in the owners. The forested settings we visited were somewhere between cultivated and uncultivated land, and this seemed to be what many forest owners appreciated most about their properties. The interviews suggested that the attachment that landowners formed with their land was about their ability to get to know it and personalize it as much as it was about the fact that their forests connected them to something larger and dynamic, which would always surprise them because they could never know it completely.
Many landowners learned to relinquish some control, embracing uncertainty and adopting a more experimental approach to the projects they undertook. The dynamic quality of nature, while frustrating at times, also kept the relationship with their land alive and fresh. Encouraging landowners to be both students and stewards of their land could serve to strengthen this relationship by fostering curiosity—observing the structures and processes of nature, asking questions, formulating theories, and trying things out.
Stewarding the Forest (and Oneself)
With RPM, we come to understand model building as an ongoing and intrinsic process through which people integrate information, undertake meaningful action, and develop their identities (R. Kaplan, Chapter 2). Information is often ignored if it runs counter to existing mental models or seems irrelevant or if we feel too fatigued or overwhelmed to be open or creative. RPM’s emphasis on creating a supportive, restorative, and engaging learning environment is particularly relevant to stewarding the forested settings in this study.
Our research suggests that engaging people through the activities that interest them might be a meaningful way of encouraging people to transition from being casual inhabitants or observers to being actors on behalf of themselves and their environment. Many of the forest owners in this study did not start out with the goal of being stewards, but through living on their land, observing nature carefully, and working on it, they developed an intimate knowledge and a deep connection to their land, regardless of whether or not they had written a management plan or taken a stewardship class. In some ways they were becoming “incidental stewards” (Busch, 2013). Similarly, Ryan and Buxton (Chapter 11) observed a heightened sense of ownership, more public use, and less vandalism in Boston’s community gardens than in their civic counterparts.
Petrich (Chapter 13) discusses how attachment to place is associated with tinkering, involving exploration and innovation to fit the environment to our needs. True attachment comes when the landowner tends to the needs of the forest, while at the same time the forest tends to the restorative needs of the individual. It is a slow and complex process. Our hope is to facilitate this process by encouraging landowners to get to know their land through exploration and discovery, increase their understanding of it through projects that provide access and orientation or embellish or restore different areas, and finally to foster a sustained interest and attachment to it by embracing nature’s wildness, observing it, stewarding it, personalizing it, and sharing it with family and friends.
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