Ecologics and Aesthetics   Edward Frank
  Jan 28, 2007 18:45 PST 
Ecologics and Aesthetics

We have been discussion aspects of aesthetics and ecology with respect to trying to create a set of numerical guidelines for evaluating these criteria. The goal would be to develop a usable methodology for evaluating the significance of a particular site when being considered for preservation or utilization. In My initial post I wrote: What is it about a particular tree, grove, or forest that tells you that this is a special place? What is it that touches you in some way on an emotional, spiritual, or aesthetic level? Is it different for individual trees as opposed to a section of a forest? If so what are the differences? .I would like to see ENTS develop a listing of aesthetic criteria as a method of characterizing sites. What is it about a particular site that moves us in some emotional way? Are we moved by the presence of large trees, small dwarfed and gnarled trees that have fought against the weather, the smell of sassafras, the crinkle of leaves in the autumn? ..First the question of what specific characteristics affect us. I can see items that we can see or touch or otherwise interact with our senses, things or events that impact us positively on a emotional level, and things that require some intellectual participation - knowing this 8 inch diameter tree is really 250 years old, might be an example. A nice write-up of these qualities would be one product of the exercise. .Could these aesthetic criteria be given some sort of a numerical value reflecting their importance in the impact of the forest, grove, or even individual trees? .Some of the criteria will be mutually exclusive, and no site will have all of the characteristics. So the ranking could be based on the sum of highest of twenty values for a site. Perhaps the group considering the question will come up with a better idea of what to do.

Others, in particular T. J. Sullivan argued that the concepts of biology and ecology should be wrapped together with the aesthetics in any guidelines. I must agree the two concepts must be considered together and they are deeply intertwined.

Tim Sullivan wrote:

"I love the idea of wrapping the concepts of "ecologics" and aesthetics together. I believe that Ed and Gary's goals overlap in many ways and converge to cover my concerns for looking at forests in a much more holistic manner. Science is often a way of quantifying what we already, at least partially, understand. Intuitive feelings are often just understandings that we have not yet figured out how to scientifically measure. Combining the understandings of science with the intuitive feelings of folks who spend significant time in the forest could create a more encompassing, progressive and effective means of forest preservation and management. "

Many members of the public have never had an oppurtunity to observe an relatively undisturbed forest and do not really have a good appreciation for the complex ecologies involved. Some are influenced by the neatness of open park-like environments and may be uncomfortable with the messy systems of a comparatively undisturbed ecosystem. A goal of the project should be to define our aesthetic criteria as those informed by ecologic knowledge of the sytems. In effect what is good ecologically is also described as aesthetically appealing. This concept of an ecologic aesthetic is discussed in the writings of many conservationists. The work of Aldo Leopold, author of "A Sand County Almanac" among others, champions this concept. It must be a keystone to any guidelines we develop.

Tim Sullivan writes: " I don't think we should be shooting for a set of aesthetic criteria that the general public can agree upon. Most people have been so conditioned to the look of increasingly unhealthy forests that they have no idea of just how beautiful a healthy forest can be. We should work to develop a set of categories that will help the public better see the beauty of a healthy, functioning forest. This system should also give land managers some guidelines on how to manage forests to produce a healthy forest aesthetic as well as provide conservation groups with a way of better prioritizing."


In a series of past posts I listed the criteria used for a couple of examples of formulas used to evaluate different forests. These included the High Conservation Value Forest Definition and the formula used to select Forest Reserves in Massachusetts. Tim Sullivan proposed a set of criteria he felt were of importance in the evaluations. I want to address these one at a time:High Conservation Value Forests: There are six criteria listed, only the first three are directly applicable to our situation

a.. HCV1. Forest areas containing globally, regionally or nationally significant concentrations of biodiversity values (e.g. endemism, endangered species, refugia). For example, the presence of several globally threatened bird species within a Kenyan montane forest.
b.. HCV2. Forest areas containing globally, regionally or nationally significant large landscape level forests, contained within, or containing the management unit, where viable populations of most if not all naturally occurring species exist in natural patterns of
distribution and abundance. For example, a large tract of Mesoamerican lowland rainforest with healthy populations of jaguars, tapirs, harpy eagles and caiman as well as most smaller species.
c.. HCV3. Forest areas that are in or contain rare, threatened or endangered ecosystems. For example, patches of a regionally rare type of freshwater swamp forest in an Australian coastal district.


The first category HCV1 says "significant concetrations of biodiversity values", which really seems to be smoke and whistles. The key concept here is the presence of endemism, endangered species, and refugia. Endemism refers to species fund nowhere else but this particular site or area - certainly worthwhile. Endangered species - they are refering to globally threatened species. In our criteria we should consider nationally and regionally threatened species as well as globally threatened ones. refugia (singular: refugium) refer to locations of isolated or relict populations of once widespread animal or plant species.   This seems to be a viable reason for conserving a particular area.

The second category HCV2 really deals with large scale undisturbed forest, which aren't really applicable, at least in the eastern United States. Large scale actions can be taken for example the Southern Rivers Conservation Project of the Virginia Nature Conservancy The Nature Conservancy in Virginia completed a conservation deal with International Paper that protects 20,830 acres of forestland in Sussex, Surry, Isle of Wight and Southampton counties in Virginia. Gov. Timothy Kaine announced the closing of the Virginia conservation deal Monday evening at the Governor's Natural Resources Leadership Summit in Marion, Virginia. "Virginia loses more than 20,000 acres of forestland each year, so it's critical that the public and private sectors work together to balance the fast-paced growth in our state with land conservation," Kaine said. "This deal between The Nature Conservancy and International Paper is an excellent example of collaborative conservation. My administration is committed to fostering more public-private efforts to meet the goals of protecting 400,000 acres by the end of the decade." The forested tracts in southeast Virginia are part of the Conservancy's Southern Rivers conservation area, a top priority for the Conservancy, and home to more than 100 rare plants, animals and natural communities. These forests contribute to the water quality of the Nottoway, Blackwater and Meherrin rivers. All three drain into the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound, the nation's second-largest estuary next to the Chesapeake Bay. The conservation deal includes the 4,900-acre Big Woods tract in Sussex County bordering the Conservancy's Piney Grove Preserve, home to the state's rarest bird-the red cockaded woodpecker.

The third category HCV3 are forest areas that are in or contain rare, threatened or endangered ecosystems. Again this seems to be a viable criteria for our purposes.


Massachusetts Forest Reserve Evaluation Criteria James DiMaio writes: We went through a process of expert choices ranking each criteria against one another.  We had experts ecologists, biologist, scientist, leaders in forestry (about 15-20 folks serve on the panel.) We also used very sophisticated GIS information for each candidate forest reserve after the weighting was developed.

Criteria                                                                        Weight
Acreage of Old Growth .                                               .268
Acreage of Valley Bottom                                                .188
% Protected Land in Surrounding area                         .115
% 1830s Forest                                                              .114
Number of Viable Rare Communities                            .108   
% BioMap Ambystomid Habitat                                     .047
% Riparian and Wetland Forest                          .035
% Forest Interior                                                 .025
Acreage of Largest Interior Forest                          .025
% Living Waters Critical Supporting Watershed            .023

Patch reserves will typically be relatively small (tens or hundreds of acres) and will be defined by the extent of the unique resources (rare species, steep slopes, etc.) intended for conservation. Matrix reserves size should be based on the expected extent of natural disturbance events. EOEA supports having a limited number of large reserves of 5,000 acres that represent the diversity of forest ecosystems that occur in Massachusetts. Potential matrix reserve sites would represent the diversity of forest ecosystems occurring within the relatively un-fragmented forest landscapes remaining in Massachusetts.


The more I look at these criteria and weighting, the more I wonder what this committee of 15 to 20 people were doing. The first criteria is acerage of old growth. That seems reasonable, but then they also have the criteria % of 1830 forest - isn't that about the same thing? I looked to find a definition of old growth for Massachusetts to see what they were defining as old growth. I found one definition in an amendment to the original bill authorizing the forest reserves - I don't know if it was adopted or not. The second was from another source. Both are essentially the same definition. Petition to amend: "Old growth forest", an area of contiguous forest that: (1) shows no evidence of significant human, post-European disturbance that originated on site; (2) has a significant component of older trees that are greater than 50 percent of the maximum longevity for the particular species; (3) is at least five acres in size; and (4) has either: (i) the capacity for self-perpetuation; or (ii) the characteristics of a forest which are indicative of an old growth forest and which otherwise meets the criteria established by regulations of the secretary. Modification of this definition may be made by regulation to incorporate future scientific advances in the understanding of old growth forests.

SECOND EXPERT MEETING ON HARMONIZING FOREST-RELATED DEFINITIONS FOR USE BY VARIOUS STAKEHOLDERS 11. (USA-Massachusetts) - An area of contiguous forest that (1) shows no evidence of significant human, post-European disturbance that originated on site, (2) has a significant component of older trees that are greater than fifty percent of the maximum longevity for that particular species, (3) is at least five acres in size, and (4) has the capacity for self-perpetuation, or (5) has the characteristics of a forest which, when found in combination together, are indicative of an old growth forest and which otherwise meets the criteria established by regulation by the Secretary. 

I have a problem with this definition in some aspects it says "no evidence of significant human, post-European disturbance"   What is significant or not? No evidence seem overly strict as virtually all forests in the eastern US have been disturbed to some degree. Limited would be better. It says "a significant component of trees that are greater than fifty percent of the maximum longevity for that particular species" Again this means if we find an older specimen of a species, then some trees will no longer be old enough to be old growth. It is flawed on another level when you consider how few tree species there are for which we have a realistic maximum age in the eastern United States.   It is unreasonable that the maximum age of the species be used. The typical life span of a tree species is not likely to be directly proportional to the maximum age for the species, so why should maximum age be used in the definition?

Acreage of valley bottom - Why is valley bottom acreage important?

% of protected land in surrounding area - this is reasonable because it deals with how much interconectivity there is between the proposed reserve and surrounding protected areas. However I can't find any definition of what the "surrounding area" means or what they mean by protected land.

Number of viable rare communities - again an excellent criteria

% BioMap Ambystomid Habitat - this is a type of salamander and it is being used as a indicator species for the quality of the habitat. Again a viable idea                         

% Riparian and Wetland Forest - I suppose there was some reason for focusing on these particular forest types, but I am not sure what it might be.

% Forest Interior - a good concept
Acreage of Largest Interior Forest - isn't this similar to the above listing of % forest interior?

% Living Waters Critical Supporting Watershed - sounds good, but I am not sure what it means or how it is measured.

If you look at the weighting of the criteria: 3 are acreages, 1 is a number, and 6 are percentages. If you would have five acres of old growth, that would by itself overwhelm the total of all of the percentage criteria effectively making them meaningless. Why were they even included then? The only values that make any difference in the weighting are acreage of old growth, acreage of valley bottom, and number of viable rare communities. The acreage of interior forest are weighted as 0.025 and will not affect the total significantly.

In conclusion, in my opinion there were some good ideas in the list, but the weighting system was not implemented well.


Tim Sullivan writes:   "We should work to develop a set of categories that will help the public better see the beauty of a healthy, functioning forest. This system should also give land managers some guidelines on how to manage forests to produce a healthy forest aesthetic as well as provide conservation groups with a way of better prioritizing their preservation efforts. Here are a few of the categories I have thought of so far:

a.. Unique habitat types
b.. Old growth stands
c.. Multi age class forests
d.. Rare species
e.. Connectivity
f.. Forest type representation
g.. Forest size
h.. Wildlife habitat

Each of these categories should have a broad definition of how to evaluate it. Then perhaps a rating system could be developed that would take into account several factors in each category. These factors should include items that rate the importance of a specific category to the location in which the forest is found (i.e does this forest represent a type that is under represented in the local area or rare in the region?, etc.). Not all the categories should be weighted equally. It would be up to local land managers and conservation groups to decide which categories are most important to the forests they are looking at. You may notice that I did not include biodiversity as a category. There are two reasons for this. First, I think many of the categories we would develop will collectively cover the concept of biodiversity and how that diversity is aesthetically appealing to us and good for forest health. More importantly I am beginning to see the concept of biodiversity being abused by land managers."


Tim has come up with some good ideas. I would like to encourage others to post their own lists or ideas on the matter. It is the time for brainstorming. Brainstorm on.
Forest Aesthetics   Edward Frank
  Jan 31, 2007 20:38 PST 

As we continue in this quest to look at forest aesthetics, I compiled this list of characteristics and phrases from our discussions so far. I present them in no order aside from when they appeared. Some I feel are good, some I might disagree, other are the beginning kernals of an idea. Read them over and add to my list. Add comments.

a.. large trees
b.. dwarfed and gnarled trees
c.. smell of sassafras
d.. crinkle of leaves in the autumn
e.. beauty, serenity and simplicity
f.. place for relaxation and contemplation
g.. forests and land before man had changed them
h.. our dreams of magnificent forests
i.. look and feel of antiquity
j.. park-like appearance
k.. trees that dwarf what one ordinarily sees
l.. interplay of symmetry with asymmetry
m.. When I was younger my idea of what made a forest beautiful was different than today. The more I learned about forests, from the trees to the streams that flow through them tothe individual insects that inhabit those forest streams, the more my ideas about the forest and what made it beautiful changed.
n.. beautiful bunch of yellow lady slippers
o.. nest of a pair of pileated woodpeckers
p.. biological diversity
q.. awe inspiring scenery
r.. best examples of each type of forest ecosystem
s.. unique forests that are not necessarily spectacular
t.. old growth fragments
u.. unusual assemblages of species
v.. unusual ecosystems
w.. rarity of forest type
x.. how a segment of
y.. forest compares to surrounding forests
z.. spiritual resource as we commune with nature
aa.. something to be admired and explored
ab.. something with an emotional impact
ac.. element of mystery felt when in a forest
ad.. different spatial and temporal scales that we cannot easily grasp
ae.. magical pockets of stunted, undisturbed forest
af.. connectivity is an important aesthetic component
ag.. plenty of magic to be found in the details
ah.. forests judges on what they may become in the future
ai.. one "family" of huge white pines
aj.. aesthetics, diversity, vigor and resilience are all words that work well together
ak.. every forested place I can remember from my youth as either impressive or especially aesthetic most are significantly changed...not by logging but by time
al.. Intuitive feelings are often just understandings that we have not yet figured out how to scientifically measure
am.. folks are used to the third/fourth growth unmanaged forests of today, and may find themmore aesthetic than the woods they replaced
an.. you pass through earlier seral stages into later successions, the older more undisturbed stands will often have more 'universal' appeal
ao.. much of the aesthetic appeal is derived from the associated flora of a woodland
ap.. differentiated color schemes (beech, birch, pines, etc.)
aq.. large trees are usually a plus
ar.. Vermont woodlands with their ground layer of herbs and ferns and abundance of hemlock and sugar maple can often be very attractive with only modest sized trees
as.. If a body of water is present, the aesthetic effect can be multiplied
at.. gestalt effect of water, sky, mountain, and forest
au.. when I think of forests it is all the other inhabitants that peak my imagination and enhance my sense of wonder. Now, in some ways, the trees are just the frames through which I see everything else
av.. sense of wonder
aw.. illusive feeling of mystery
ax.. Magic Maple: superb symmetry, significant height and size for the species, location, etc., the works. It is a picture of health. It carries itself with pride
ay.. place of great power
az.. luxuriance that lies deep
ba.. feeling of mystery to the woodlands - an attribute of fog or cloud-enshrouded forests.
bb.. trail sounds: the deflection and absorption of human sound by leaves, stems, and the mist is a merciful gift of forest gods
bc.. centuries-old black gum with alligator bark
bd.. Imagination: the chatter of surface consciousness is hushed, in such places, one's deeper imagination takes over and fantasizing becomes the natural process of a healthy mind
be.. great poplar looked wise, the forest's voice of experience with it's hulking form
bf.. The tree had a hollow side, home to many small mammals, including interior forest bats, and countless insects. High above, this old monarch of the cove played host to vocal, avian visitors. Neo-tropical migratory songbirds sat on its huge extended limbs and announced the boundaries of their territories. We could see ferns and mosses and even
saplings growing in the forks of its branches fully 90 feet above the forest floor. The old tuliptree was literally a hotel in the forest, a place of rest for those passing through, and a permanent abode for many a local critter.
bg.. hidden spot
bh.. psychic pathway that forms part of the connections shared by all living things
bi.. aesthetic appreciation should be informed by ecological knowledge
bj.. deeper beauty, informed by meaning
bk.. subtle, experiential, and dynamic qualities that often characterize forest ecosystems of high biological integrity
bl.. dynamic nature of healthy ecosystems
bm.. open look and species uniformity of large old growth forests
bn.. chaos of naturally disturbed forest patches
bo.. pockets of unique species scattered in micro habitats
bp.. define the species' best expression
bq.. timeless expressions of nature's beauty
br.. inviting sound of rushing the waters
bs.. long lines and smooth curves carry our eyes upward along her trunk and into her out-swept limbs
bt.. pleasing flow to each of her branches. The contours have the power to sooth us.
bu.. the space that she claims as her own
bv.. near physical perfection for her species
bw.. Stand near me and sense my gentle power
bx.. beauty is part of aesthetics
by.. Magic Maple communicates clearly that her species belongs in the woodlands of New England.
bz.. combination of size and symmetry, including bark symmetry, with ample viewing opportunity that elicited ideas of perfection

Edward Frank

Re: Forest Aesthetics   Steve Galehouse
  Feb 01, 2007 18:17 PST 

I think the aesthetic effect of a forest depends to a great extent on
the vantage point of the observer--an expanse of forest seen across a
wide valley or on a distant mountain side elicits a sense of grandeur
and awe; the same forest seen from within, looking "out" and up, elicits
a sense of wonder and intimacy--both sensations accurate and valid, just

Steve Galehouse
Re: Forest Aesthetics   Holly Post
  Feb 02, 2007 02:56 PST 

Hi there: When I am in the forest I have a gut
reaction. A feeling of comfort wraps around me like
my mother's arms. I am not kidding.
Bosai Aesthetics   Edward Frank
  May 01, 2007 19:54 PDT 

While researching the overall forest aesthetics question I came across this reference tonight:

Artistic Foundations of Bonsai Design by Andy Rutledge

It is an online book that covers the principles of bonsai design. Some of the concepts are certainly applicable to forest aesthetics and the aesthetics of individual trees.

Edward Frank