Virginia Tech Research Looks At The 'Human Dimensions' Of The Forest

December 17, 1998

Blacksburg, Va., Dec. 17, 1998 --A forest is more than trees, animals, and plants. There are social attributes, too.

Bruce Hull, a forestry professor at Virginia Tech, recently conducted a study of the relationships between the forest of Mount Rogers, Va. and its surrounding communities.

The study, part of the national research agenda to understand "human dimensions of ecosystem management," was sponsored by the Southern Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service.

"There is more to the forest than trees, water, and hunting," says Hull. "These things are significant, but there are some other qualities that we don't talk about as much or recognize."

Virginia Tech researchers worked with eight focus groups to get public perceptions of the forest. The groups of fewer than 20 people each represented "different communities of place" and "different communities of interest," Hull says.

The Mount Rogers focus groups included citizens from the nearby small towns of Abingdon, Damascus, Marion, and Independence, and were made up of real estate professionals, tourism officials, politicians, environmentalists, and members of the media.

Mount Rogers was chosen as the study site because it is an area of regional and national significance. Not only is it part of the Jefferson National Forest, but it is also a National Recreation Area and receives about a million visits each year.

This forest has a history of relations to the community. It was condemned and taken from private hands years ago. Now it is changing from remote Appalachia to a place of tourism and retirees as people head there for the quality of life.

Mount Rogers is also an example of local initiative applying the national research agenda to improve the quality of life.

Hull's study found that the informants recognized that the forest and its land managers provide various benefits to the community, that the forest shapes the community in many intangible ways.

According to the study, the focus groups said benefits of the forest include residential quality of life, community, environmental ethics, organizational and administrative services, and economic and traditional forest resources.

This finding differs from what land managers consider to be the important parts of forestry. Land managers are concerned with the tangible aspects of water, wood, wildlife, recreation, and range grazing.

The field of forestry is struggling with a communication gap between land managers and the public, Hull says. The priorities of what the land is supposed to provide is changing and land managers are trying to find practical and social solutions.

"My hope is that the study will help natural resource managers better understand their constituents and that it will help neighbors, communities, and visitors of forests better express and voice management preferences," Hull explains.

Lynn Davis

Virginia Tech

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