When you think of forest research, several topics probably come to mind—wildlife habitat management, invasive species, drought, or tree disease. You may be surprised to learn that some U.S. Forest Service scientists research an entirely different type of forest life—the people who visit forests.
Promoting visitation of the national forests by people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds is a stated priority for the Forest Service. One Forest Service researcher is trying to find out how well the agency is accomplishing this objective.
Cassandra Johnson Gaither, research social scientist with the Forest Service Southern Research Station Human and Natural Systems unit in Athens, Georgia, specializes in the study of social group engagement with the natural environment. A long-time focus of Johnson Gaither’s research has been on how minorities tend to view and use our national forests. Now, her work refocuses on the same issue, but through the other side of the lens.
In her latest report, Visitor Diversity Through the Recreation Manager Lens: U.S Forest Service Regions 8 (U.S. South) and 5 (California) , Johnson Gaither and her team look at the strategies those who manage recreation on our national forests use to connect with culturally and ethnically diverse recreationists, as well as the challenges these managers face in doing so. She believes this perspective is crucial to bridging the gap between high-level directives and implementing these directives in the field.
“If diversity of recreation visitors to national forests is important, it’s vital that we understand how that might come about,” said Johnson Gaither. “And one of the important factors in that diversity equation is the recreation managers themselves. Do they really understand what is being asked of them, and how do they achieve these objectives with limited resources and budgets?”
As part of this research, Johnson Gaither and her colleagues conducted interviews with National Forest System managers and staff across the U.S. South and in California, areas with diverse populations and wide-ranging ethnic cultures. A common theme in the interviews was that managers wanted to increase minority visitation in their forest, but having the resources to do so was a different story. In fact, as Johnson Gaither noted, “the consistency of responses related to budgetary constraints” in both California and the South was revealing.
While forest managers struggle with the ongoing challenge of doing more with less, some groups have found creative ways to engage non-traditional forest visitors. In California, the Forest Service funds a successful community engagement program called the California Consortium. Each of the three Consortium programs—one each in the northern, central, and southern parts of the state—serves as an environmental education and minority outreach and job recruitment program.
A Houston, Texas-based outreach program called Urban Connections, Hispanic Legacy, also co-sponsored by the Forest Service, reaches out to Hispanic children and their families. The program developed the Bosque Móvil (“Mobile Forest”), an exhibit-on-wheels that visits Hispanic cultural events across southeast Texas. Bilingual conservation materials, hands-on activities, and other displays fill the Bosque Móvil, engaging Hispanic children along the way.
However, Johnson Gaither’s findings show that these types of successful community outreach programs are the exception in the South. She hopes that her research can open up discussions that can help shed light on ways recreation managers can tap into new and existing methods and tools to reach out to the diverse publics they serve.
“Some managers are eager to understand better the factors that are driving recreational demand on their forests and districts, especially in the South,” she said. “Managers realize that the communities around their forests have already changed to reflect demographic shifts, but they’re not quite sure what they can do to address these concerns. Managers are saying they need specific tools, action items they can implement that will make a difference.”
For more information, email Cassandra Johnson Gaither at firstname.lastname@example.org .