For Love of the Woods—The Importance of Helping Others Connect and Care in the Long Haul

Posted: July 31, 2018

How can today’s woodland owners foster and inspire the next generation of woodland owners who will ensure that our forests are retained and actively cared for?

With nearly 17 million acres of forested land in Pennsylvania, it can be easy to take for granted that those woods will always be there. An comprehensive “state of the state” report published by the Brookings Institution in 2016 (A Competitive Agenda for Renewing Pennsylvania) noted that one of Pennsylvania’s biggest challenges for the future is that land conversion and development in Pennsylvania is chipping away at what so many love about the state—its quality of place that is tied so closely with the forested landscape. According to the findings of the report, the state’s population is not growing, but the rate of development is second in the nation, with a rate of almost 4 acres of land being developed for every new resident of the state (between 1982 and 1997, also indicating that the trend is continuing).

Most of Pennsylvania’s forested land—11 million acres—is privately owned, in the care of an estimated 740,000 owners. That number has been steadily increasing over several decades. In 1980, the number of woodland owners in Pennsylvania was about 490,000 and by 1993 the number of owners grew to about 514,000 owners. Researchers at the Center for Private Forests at Penn State found, in a 2010 survey, that many woodland owners intend to pass their land on to younger family members. However, the Brookings Institution reported a trend of young people leaving the state, often in search of better-paying work. With an additional trend of forested land being divided into smaller chunks and/or being developed as aging owners sell or transfer land to heirs and other owners, it becomes clearer that there are challenges to simply keeping forests as forests.

This leads to an important question: how can today’s woodland owners foster and inspire the next generation of woodland owners who will ensure that our forests are retained and actively cared for? Much of the challenge surrounding this question—and also the hope—can be distilled into the simple concept of deepening people’s connection with the woods around them. Clearly, connection begins with simply spending time in the woods, but a part of what deepens that connection is learning. Most people who own, study, and/or work in the woods can think of at least one person in their lives who helped them experience and learn about the forest. Many times, that experiential learning came in an informal setting rather than in a structured class. This points to a tremendous opportunity for current woodland owners who share their knowledge and love of the woods to make a difference in the long term by helping to spark learning and engagement of future woodland owners and caretakers.

For someone who is more introverted than extroverted, the idea of teaching others seems easier said than done. One doesn’t have to be extroverted or charismatic to be a good teacher, though. Whether leading an organized group or sharing a walk in the woods with grandchildren or a neighbor, being a good teacher really comes down to tapping into one’s own excitement, meeting the learners where they are, and following some basic “best practices.”

The way we share our knowledge and passion for woodland—whether with children or with adults—is a big part of deepening others’ understanding of and relationship to the land. In particular, finding ways to incorporate active learning is essential to cultivating knowledge and connection. When a learner can feel the texture of a leaf or the bark of a tree, learn a plant’s unique smell, and closely examine the hairs on a twig or the shape of a leaf scar, their learning is greatly enhanced. When storytelling is incorporated with teaching—maybe how a tree or understory plant has been used medicinally or as food, how a plant’s name relates to its characteristics, or even a personal story about how the instructor came to learn about a plant—learners are engaged more deeply than a lecture-style learning experience.

Hands-on experience and demonstration are also important and effective in helping people of all ages learn. A few ways one might lead active, hands-one learning in an informal setting is to engage family members in building an inventory and description of plant on a family property, or to capture the oral history of how the family has used and stewarded the land. For more advanced learning, and in settings where a landowner might want to share his/her woodland stewardship knowledge, hands-on demonstrations are also very useful and impactful. For example, a current project of the Center for Private Forests at Penn State is engaged in teaching experienced landowners a hands-on woodland health and regeneration assessment that they can share with less experienced landowners. This assessment process includes an exercise that has landowners conduct an imaginary harvest, in which only the largest diameter trees are removed. By engaging in a hands-on exercise and an interactive conversation, the message of how this type of harvest would worsen woodland function and its future potential is communicated much more effectively than simply telling a landowner why this type of harvest is detrimental.

To help build connections to the land by teaching in either a formal or informal setting, and with any audience of learners—whether family or neighbors, adults or young people—there are some basic but essential practices to keep in mind to make the learning and connection-building most effective.

  • When talking with a group outside, wait for everyone to catch up and encourage people to gather in a circle to allow everyone to hear and see. Many of us have experienced the frustration of being in the back of the group and missing what the leader is sharing with the people in the front of the group. This practice also helps to foster richer conversation. 
  • Help the learner understand how an idea relates to their own lives. An effective teacher thinks about who the audience is and makes the topic understandable and relatable to that audience. In other words, a good teacher answers the question of “Why should I care?” without waiting for the question to be asked by the learner. 
  • Meet learners where they are. Be open and welcoming of different perspectives. Listen, look for shared values and experiences, and be thoughtful and gentle in correcting a misconception and broadening a conversation. 
  • Make use of teachable moments. Don’t miss the opportunities to talk about unanticipated questions that arise, or crouch down on the trail to observe a plant or critter. Connections to the land are built with these moments, as well as any planned agenda.

Just as active stewardship is important in addressing concerns like invasive plants in Pennsylvania’s forested landscape, the role of current woodland owners as teachers of their peers and families is important to cultivating the connection and care that will help keep forests as forests in the long haul.

For more information about projects and tips mentioned in this article, or for additional ideas and resources to engage family and neighbors in learning about and connecting with woodlands, contact us.

Contact Information

Leslie Horner
  • Forest Stewardship Program Associate
Phone: 814-867-5982