On Defining A Forest Aesthetic Edward Frank
April 13, 2009


This is a draft of the concept of defining a forest aesthetic.  I need your help in fleshing out the ideas and refining them.  I do expect an immediate acceptance of the concepts presented, but it a beginning.  I have presented a complete plan and rating system.  I am sure that my ideas can be nit-picked to death.  What I would like to see, however are either suggestions that improve upon the framework I have presented, or provides a complete and comprehensive alternative proposal.  If you don’t have a better idea, don’t sit back and tear mine down.  If you have a better idea, let’s see it.  This proposal is not meant to stand completely on its own when evaluating a forest.  It is to be used in conjunction with all of the other evaluation criteria including the accepted definitions of old-growth, the presence of endangered species, social and economic considerations, historical considerations, and archaeological considerations.  The other project I have been working on, under the title significant forest patches, should also be an accompanying evaluation criterion that meshes with this aesthetic criteria proposal.  I hope to have another draft of that significant forest patch document completed soon.  At this point I need to expand upon the definitions and terms used in the numerical rating portion of the document. I also need to determine what is a good score and what is a bad score for a forest.  To do this you all can help me by trying to rate a forest in your area and see what score is achieved.  Bob Leverett for example could rate MTSF, Dale Luthringer might rate Cook Forest, and so forth.

Ed Frank



On Defining a Forest Aesthetic

How do you define a forest aesthetic?  Clearly there is beauty in the forest. 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?  The goal of promoting and maintaining the aesthetics of the forest should play a role in forest management decisions.  

There are several factors that should be considered in valuing a forest: 1) Economic value.  This is in terms of timber value versus recreational dollars related to the forest. The health benefits of having a nearby forest can also be added into this mix.  This health aspect is discussed in several articles by the Trust for Public Land; 2) Biological significance. There needs to be an accounting of the rarity of a forest characteristic or type, and an accounting of its biological significance both in terms of its own value and of its value as part of a larger biological system.  There is a need to consider endangered species, and presence of old growth, and amount of old growth present.  But these should not be the only defining characteristics that denote a particular forest or forest patch as biologically significant.  At this point when making management decisions, often only old growth is given any consideration.  That valuation is the goal of a thread I started on the ENTS discussion entitled “Significant Forest Patches.” http://www.nativetreesociety.org/forestecology/characteristics_of_significant.htm; 3) Cultural values:  This would include historical importance, recreational value, archaeological, and for some groups, religious importance; 4) Aesthetics.  This would include not only beauty but the emotional value of escaping from civilization, and the chance to commune with nature.  Part of my new aesthetic discussion post will address the need to promote a forest aesthetic that values the degree of naturalness in the forested landscape; 5) Ethical considerations.  What do we owe in terms of forest management and practices to the natural world, what do we owe to other people who will be affected by the forest management decisions, and what do we owe to future generations who will live with the decisions we are making now?  Some of these categories may tend to interleave, some way is needed to include all of them in the general discussion of the value of a particular forest.  What is exemplary and what is not?

Management decisions are typically based upon type of a numerical analysis of cost and benefits of a proposed action.  Sometimes some social or recreational values of a forest are given weight, but more often these are undervalued in relation to the more easily quantified timber value of trees in a particular stand.  If something cannot be quantified, it is typically given short thrift in decision making.  If the topic “forest aesthetics” is searched on the internet, many hits are found.  These results generally do not deal with the concept of aesthetics as a forest value, but on ways to better hide various types of questionable timber operations so that they will not generate as much public outrage at the destruction.  The problem faced by trying to define a forest aesthetic is twofold.  The first aspect is to determine what qualities and characteristics of a forest make it aesthetically pleasing or valuable.  The second aspect of the problem is find a way to quantify these values so that they can be better incorporated into forest management plans. 

What is the difference between a woodlot and a forest?  A simplistic description might define a forest is a collection of trees and assorted flora and fauna on a piece of property.   However a forest is more than that.  It consists not only of these simple parts, but of the interrelationships between those parts.   In general the greater the age and scale of those interrelationships, the more intertwined those relationships are, and the more aesthetically pleasing is the combination.


What is Aesthetics?

The concept of aesthetics is itself hard to define.  It is an attempt to judge what is beautiful or what carries emotional or sentimental values.  Some artists believe that a work of art is successful if it engenders a strong emotional response.  For purposes here I will limit the discussion to those things that cause a strong positive response.  Some aspects of beauty can be considered universal.  In the search for human attractiveness it was found people with a greater degree of facial symmetry were rated as more beautiful than others across all races and all cultures.  Are there such universal traits present in considering forest aesthetics? 

The second component of aesthetics is learned or cultural aspects of aesthetics.  Consider the diversity of music found in different cultures.  Most would find some of these musical traditions beautiful, while others would seem to be a cacophonous jumble of noise depending on their own cultural background.  Cultural backgrounds also plays a strong role I how we view the forest.  The Puritans when they arrived in the new world viewed the wilderness as a chaotic jumble that clearly was the abode of demons.  The forest would only cease to be frightening when through the hand of man, doing the work of God, it was tamed, conquered, and brought order from the chaos. Some reflection of this viewpoint can still be seen in the immaculately maintained classic English Gardens.  Others found the wilderness to be an escape from the chains, burdens, and structure of civilization.  

A third category to be considered is a learned appreciation for an aesthetic.  For example many people do not appreciate the qualities of the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock.  Critics are still undecided about Pollock’s work.  Some have called his work extremely decorative wall paper, while others characterize Pollock as the best painter of his time.  In either case an informed knowledge is needed to truly appreciate or even to adequately disparage Pollack’s work.  This same effect is present in considerations of a forest aesthetic.  Some people feel that knowing more about a particular tree or phenomena detracts from the appreciation of it as an entity.  I think that knowing more about a tree or phenomena allows a deeper appreciation of it by letting a person consider characteristics not apparent without that knowledge.  A otherwise non-descript tree might not get more than a passing notice, but if I knew it was 350 years old, it would catch my attention and I would search for those qualities of age and form I otherwise would not have noticed.


What Makes A Forest Special?

The subject of forest aesthetics has been discussed previously by Eastern Native Tree Society (ENTS) members:  http://www.nativetreesociety.org/projects/aesthetics/index_ents_forest_aesthetics.htm http://www.nativetreesociety.org/projects/aesthetics/ents_forest_aesthetics_project.htm http://www.nativetreesociety.org/projects/aesthetics/aesthetics_and_eco.htm and http://www.nativetreesociety.org/projects/aesthetics/ecologics_and_aesthetics.htm

In these discussions a number of characteristics that members found to be aesthetically pleasing or important were listed.  All of these ideas were valid.  Some were self evident and agreeable to everyone, and some ideas presented were contradictory.  Many of these comments exhibit a profound thoughtful analysis of the subject.  I encourage anyone interested in the subject to read the entire sequences of the discussions. Here is a sampling of a few of the comments.

Larry Tucei (December 08, 2006) writes:

“I myself when in a Forest am awed at the beauty, serenity and simplicity. To me, it becomes a place that is for relaxation and contemplation. Many times I've wondered about the Forests and Land before Man had changed them. It must have been breathtaking to see the Ancient Forests in North America. We should help ensure that young people see what a forest is supposed to look like before their all gone! Passing on our knowledge to them so they can carry on our dreams of Magnificent Forests.”

Robert Leverett (December 08, 2006) writes:

“Beauty, being in the eyes of the beholder, will allow several very different forest forms to be equally attractive/competitive. For instance, the look and feel of antiquity is likely to be a criteria that ranks high with everybody, irrespective of whether or not the trees at a site are large. Similarly, a park-like appearance of a forest has great appeal, regardless of whether or not the trees are exceptionally old.  Forests with trees of overwhelming size obviously have great aesthetic appeal. One need not know the numbers to be bowled over by the presence of trees that dwarf what one ordinarily sees. There is an interesting interplay of symmetry with asymmetry that we need to investigate. Too little symmetry can create an unattractive, cluttered look. Too much symmetry can be boring. And the list goes on.”

Doug Bidlack (December 08, 2006) writes:

“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 to the individual insects that inhabit those forest streams, the more my ideas about the forest and what made it beautiful changed.”

Bob Leverett (December 13, 2008) writes:

“One point to consider as we discuss aesthetics is that what makes forests special to a lot of people is the element of mystery they feel when in a forest. Some of us like believing that the myriad of forest processes that we don't understand, and which proceed on different spatial and temporal scales that we cannot easily grasp, will keep us in a state of unknowing for a very long time and protect the great forest mystery. As we learn more about forest processes, and one by one, the mysteries disappear, often so does the magic and respect for nature. It doesn't have to happen that way, but sometimes it does. One way to regain respect and recover our sense of awe is through artistic rendering of forests.”

Tim Sullivan (December 14, 2006) writes:

“I have done a tiny bit of hiking in the Adirondacks but most of my experience is from Western Mass. Vermont and NH as well as the ridgetops along the AT. In Vermont I worked as a Ranger/Naturalist and discovered many magical pockets of stunted, undisturbed forest. I find those stunted and contorted trees to be every bit as inspiring as the majestic redwoods in the west.”

Steve Galehouse (December 17, 2006) writes:

“For me, much of the aesthetic appeal is derived from the associated flora of a woodland--in the woods of central Ontario, where I'm most familiar anymore, not much can compare with the ethereal scent of Twinflower in bloom in an old stand of Red Pine, or the aroma of Sweetfern along a portage trail, or when grabbing on to a branch of Sweet Gale along a lakeshore. The trees are the main event, the "cake"; the other more subtle plants are the "icing".

Bob Leverett (Dec. 18, 2006) writes:

 “…aesthetic appeal in eastern woodlands is often a complex mix that includes some symmetry, but not too much, differentiated color schemes (beech, birch, pines, etc.). Large trees are usually a plus, but if obscured by clutter from shrubs and young trees, their impact is reduced. We humans do like that park-like appearance. The 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. If a body of water is present, the aesthetic effect can be multiplied.  What pleases some of us most is the gestalt effect of water, sky, mountain, and forest. There are so many combinations that distilling the elements and analyzing them individually can miss the point. It is the combination.”

Tim Sullivan (January 05, 2007) writes:

“I love the open look and species uniformity of large old growth forests. But, also love the chaos of naturally disturbed forest patches and the early successional species that magically appear in them. Or, the small pockets of unique species scattered in micro habitats among the more pervasive forest types. Each kind of habitat makes me appreciate the others even more… Biodiversity comes from individuals evolving to unique habitats, unique climatic conditions and competitive pressures. By doing this, they themselves become unique. It is these unique individuals and the way they all work together to create a sustainable and evolving system that I find aesthetically pleasing.”

Steve Galehouse (February 01, 2007) writes:

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 different.


An Ecological Aesthetic

Consider, if part of a forest aesthetic is based upon cultural or learned values, an aesthetic criteria should be developed that emphasizes the value of biologically unique or rare forest elements. This criterion, encompassed by the broad umbrella of aesthetics, would emphasize the concepts of species diversity, and beauty in what superficially ugly stunted or unappealing forests based upon their ecological qualities. The guidelines should be phrased so that the unique qualities of these forests could be counted on a scale comparable to that of the "prettier" forests. More biologically important areas might be preserved if we could give those people making the decisions something to point at and say, “Using these criteria there is a reason to preserve the forest.”  Similar ideas were presented by Tim Sullivan and Andrew Joslin in the earlier discussions of the subject.

Tim Sullivan (December 13, 2006) writes:

“Many of the things you describe as aesthetically pleasing are actually a factor of biodiversity. The reason why a stunted mountain top forest can be as appealing to many as the giant redwoods is due to the diversity of species adapting to live in their unique habitats. I think aesthetics already carry a significant weight in forest management. It is the forests that are aesthetically pleasing that tend to get the most protection. People are far more likely to object to the logging of a majestic redwood forest than a dry scrub oak forest. Protecting forests that have unique, and often attractive, characteristics is important but so is protecting forest connectivity and diversity. I would like to see a system that takes all these factors into account.”

Andrew Joslin (December 13, 2006) writes:

“I think a goal of the forest aesthetics project could be to broaden the general public's idea of what makes a beautiful forest. For instance many people might find their local predominant forest type mundane because they are so used to it. This devalues the forest in their mind and makes it easier for developers and commercially oriented forest managers to take advantage. It might take a fresh perspective to demonstrate the aesthetic beauty of a given forest type or location that is taken for granted. Aesthetics appreciation has a great effect on perceived value and therefore is very important to forest preservation even if it is not based on biological data.”

These concepts have received support in the academic field as well.  In Sheppard, Stephen R. J., Chapter eleven: Beyond Visual Resource Management: Emerging Theories of an Ecological Aesthetic and Visible Stewardship (2000), Sheppard writes:

The Ecological Aesthetic.  More in tune with the new forestry of ecosystem management is the idea that aesthetic appreciation should be informed by ecological knowledge, so that what is good ecologically also looks good to us. This theory draws on Leopold’s philosophy of the land ethic (Leopold, 1949) and related arguments from Carlson (1979; 1984), Callicott (1987), and Gobster (1995).

This new aesthetic paradigm seeks explicitly to reconcile aesthetics and ecological sustainability. It advocates a deeper beauty, informed by meaning: it is “as cerebral as it is perceptual” (Flader and Callicott, 1991). Gobster sees the ecological aesthetic as recognizing “the more subtle, experiential, and dynamic qualities that often characterize
forest ecosystems of high biological integrity” (Gobster, 1995,p. 7).

Many members of the public have never had an opportunity to observe a 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 systems. 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.

There were concerns expressed about the concept of defining a forest aesthetic.  Doug Bidlack (December 08, 2006) wrote:  If we just protect those forests that we think are most beautiful I fear that although we may protect most of the remaining coastal redwood forests, we may also completely lose many less spectacular forests. That bothers me.”   I am not arguing that this aesthetic criteria is the only reason to protect a forest. As Doug suggested, doing so would imply that only beautiful forests would be preserved. The goal here is to develop another tool to evaluate a forest in a way that could help give a deserving piece of woods a better chance of being preserved. 

Another point I wanted to emphasize is that while I am calling this Forest Aesthetics, I mean the term to be broadly interpreted beyond just beauty so that it would incorporate both aspects of a forest that could be easily measured as well as those that are more difficult to quantify.  Looking at forests and trees based upon aesthetic criteria is an exploration of the nature of human interaction with forests. This interaction may take many forms ranging from a resource to be harvested, as something to be admired and explored, as something with an emotional impact, or even as spiritual resource as we commune with nature. I believe this exploration in and of itself is a worthwhile goal.

Another question posed concerned who would be defining the criteria.  I do not intend the criteria be developed by members of the general public, but by members of the Eastern Native Tree Society.  The ENTS membership is a combination of scientists, naturalists, foresters and forest lovers that makes it a unique and encompassing group of people. This rating system takes advantage of the organizations entire base of knowledge, understanding and appreciation. 

Tim Sullivan (December 18, 2006) wrote: 

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:

Unique habitat types
Old growth stands
Multi age class forests
Rare species
Forest type representation
Forest size
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.

Many of the specific categories and concepts proposed by Tim have been included in the aesthetic criteria below or were included in the discussion on Significant Forest Patches cited earlier.

The concept of biodiversity needs to be addressed in this discussion.  The question is do we want a more diverse environment of many examples of common species, or do we want a less diverse environment with more examples of uncommon species? A setting that contains a larger number of different habitat types, such as an old abandoned field adjacent to a second growth forest may have a high diversity of species - those from both the forest and field settings as well as those inhabiting the habitat edge between the two. An old-growth forest may have fewer numbers of birds and animals, or even large plant species, but may have diverse communities of moss mats, lycopodium, lichens, ferns, and other species less commonly found in disturbed forests. In terms of total species diversity the abandoned field/second growth forest system may have overall higher species diversity, but may lack representation of uncommon species types and assemblages. 

The point that needs emphasized is that forest diversity needs to be considered on a broad landscape based scale.  Diversity does not need to be achieved within a single forest.  Often a stated goal of enhancing species diversity has been falsely used as an excuse to log older forests and to justify the logging operation.  Old growth and late mature, minimally affected, secondary forests are rare on a landscape scale; therefore they need to be preserved intact to achieve greater diversity in the broader landscape.  These forests should not be managed to achieve diversity within these forest patches themselves. 


Choosing the Rating Criteria

Choosing the rating criteria is a complex problem. While it is difficult to even articulate many aspects of what makes a particular forest feel special, it is even more difficult to categorize these feelings.  There is a need to capture the feeling of beauty, the sense of wonder, and the mystery of the forest.  There is a need to capture the feeling of serenity and escape form civilization. There is a need to establish an aesthetic taste based upon natural qualities and respect for the environment.  There is a need to find some way to distinguish between characteristics that can be found in any forest from those found only in exemplary forests.  There also is a need to choose criteria that can be fairly applied and cannot easily be manipulated to bias the results.

These criteria consist of both of aspects of the forest as a whole and of individual features within the forest.  The forest itself can serve as framework for vignettes of forest life.  There is a need to find criteria that will enable individuals to differentiate between exemplary forests and mediocre forests.  There is a need to incorporate an ecologic aesthetic as opposed to a garden aesthetic.  Many people who have only seen heavily impacted forests or managed parks may not be familiar with the natural character of a more pristine forest.  There is a need to evaluate a particular forest relative to other forests in the region as opposed to forests hundreds of miles away which may have dramatically different settings and histories.   Toward that end I have tried to incorporate not only my original ideas and concepts, but those presented in the classic writings of essayists and environmentalists like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, more contemporary thinkers like Michael Perlman, and  comments made by members of the Eastern Native Tree Society in response to discussions of the subject.


Numerical Rating System

How should these concepts be implemented?  I want to find a fair way to evaluate these forests. I am not looking for one that will say every forest is great. If, for example, I had the money to purchase 500 acres, which of these forests would be the best choice to purchase? Much of the focus up to this point is on aspects that would give a forest a high score, but there absence might also give a particular one a poor score as well.  I am proposing a methodology to numerically evaluate both the biological significance of a forest patch and of the aesthetic values of the forest. This initial rating system may be subject to debate, but it will present a starting point for the discussion.  Some of these values will be based upon a compilation of relative ordering of subjective values.  The chosen criteria will be subjectively rated by an observer on a numerical scale of 1 through 5 based upon a defined rating framework.  In effect, it will be a social survey, with a framework designed to better order the responses.  To large degree some of the criteria should be based on how a segment of forest compares to surrounding forests. In an area with almost no old growth or intact stands of forest, a particular grove may be important to preserve even though in a different region it might only be a marginal example of that type of a forest community. It certainly is a complex problem, but I think it is worth attempting.

Various overviews of the different types of surveys and there construction can be found at this websites: http://members.tripod.com/frede_dast/conseil1_a.html

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Resources developed a numerical system for evaluating the various forest sites for consideration for inclusion in their forest reserve system.  One of the primary considerations was to find large tracts that were greater in size than the openings formed by large scale forest destruction events such as forest fires, blow-downs, and the like  With regard to the 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. http://www.mass.gov/envir/forest/pdf/whatare_forestreserves.pdf

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 categories and specific criteria for an aesthetic consideration will be different, but the Massachusetts effort provides a example of the type of analysis that can be done.


Premise:  Why do people enjoy a walk in a forest? 

Foremost, I think, is a sense of escape from civilization.  There is a chance to escape from the sounds of industry, traffic, and urban living.  There is a chance to escape from the hardscapes and sharp edges of developed landscape.  There is a chance to escape from the rigid orderliness of painted white lines, exactly space lots, telephone poles.  There is a release from the pressures of these trappings of civilization as the forest provides a buffer to our senses.  The sounds of animals, birds, rustling leaves, and trickling water dampen the echoes of civilization.  The upswept trunks of trees and cushions of bright green moss and touches of color from a forest flower smooth the remembrance of the edges of civilization.   The forest is not chaotic, but the subtle patterns of spacing and size are variable, malleable, and flow freely from one to another.   Both size and degree of naturalness of the forest play a role in the escape.  The larger the area, the greater chance to avoid the encroaching effects of civilization.   The more pristine and natural the area, the fewer aspects are present to remind someone of from what they trying to escape. 

A second factor oft described as being in the presence of something greater than one’s self.   This includes aspects of both size and age.  Large trees are massive in size compared to an individual.  The idea that they are alive, just as a person is alive, gives a person a sense of scale.  Old trees tap another facet of the same thought.   The old tree in the forest may have been here before Europeans came to the new world.  It might have borne silent witness to great events of history.  It may persist long into the future.  It demonstrates how ephemeral length of a human lifespan when compared to that of some of these aged trees.  If the visitor is of a religious nature, he may see the forest as someplace that has seen the touch of God, untrammeled by the hand of man, and feel the presence of the divine being.

A third factor is the sense of mystery encountered when exploring a forest.  In a natural setting someone does not know what he will see around the next bend of the trail, or on top of the next rock.  People are curious by nature and have a drive to explore their environment.  In a forest there is a feeling that not everything is known and planned.  A patch of ferns may pop up anywhere growing in a pool of light.  There may be young tree seedling growing on a fallen log.  Not only is there a question of what you may find, but a question of why it is there, and how does everything work together.  It has been argued by a few that knowledge of forest processes may detract from this sense of mystery, I believe that knowledge of the forest simply changes the focus of the mystery.  Knowledge allows you to see relationships and processes a casual observer might not have noted. 

A fourth factor is the survivors in the forest.  These are trees, plants, and systems that have survived harsh time and are still alive.  Dwarfed, twisted and gnarled trees fall into this category.  They have been described as “aged with adversity.”  Perhaps seen in their twisted forms is a reflection the struggles a viewer has gone through in their own lives. Likewise the presence of rare or unusual creatures or plants in an area testifies to their struggle to survive as a species.  There are signs of the cycle of life in the forest.  Wherever a tree has fallen, new plants spring up in the opening created.  Fungi grow on dead wood breaking it down to nutrients.  Fallen trunks form the seedbed for the next generation of forest as small trees grow amongst the moss and ferns breaking down the fallen tree.  It is a sign not of survival of an individual, but of the forest community as a whole.  It is a sign that there is something beyond death for these fallen giants.

A fifth factor is one of simple beauty.  The trunks of the trees and outcrops of rocks form a framework for small vignettes of forest life.  These scenes show the interplay play of light and dark and the varied textures and colors of the life, the soil, and stone of the forest.   Enhancing these visual elements are the background of forest sounds, the smell of the air and soil, the feeling of the wind and the rolling ground, and textures and patterns of the forest itself. There are scenes of a single tree demonstrating its size and power; demonstrating its perfection of symmetry and form.  There are scenes of less flamboyant trees, each with their own personality, and scenes of family groves of trees. There are larger scenes of tree trunks fading into the distance into the depths of the forest.  Old growth forests are often fairly open as the canopy of old forest is nearly closed and less light reaches the forest floor.  People tend to find this openness pleasing.  It is not manicured, but still open.  Occasional open patches in the canopy give rise to a profusion of growth where light reaches the forest floor.  These light patches adds to the vitality of the forest experience overall.  In contrast young forests, those regrowing after timbering or cutting, are typically filled with brushy growth and are messy.  What is appears to add vitality in small patches is less inviting when it consumes the entire forest. 

A sixth factor is an ecologic aesthetic.  This is an appreciation for the appearance and functioning of a natural forest system. It values the ecosystems that are more intact and less impacted by civilization.  It values forests that have fewer invasive plant and animal species. It values the ideal of a pristine primal forest.  There is an appreciation for rare or unusual species and species associations. This aesthetic value contains aspects of both an innate and a learned appreciation for these characteristics.  

The final major factor is the emotional connection people seem to have with the forest.  It has been suggested that this relates to our ancestors living in a forest as some time in our long evolutionary past.  Others might say we are relating to human life before we were tossed out of the Garden of Eden.  Our connection with the forest is reflected in each of the factors already discussed.  While this may the most difficult of the factors to describe, it is none the less a real and critical aspect of how we as a people relate to a forest.  Some people see the forest as something menacing that needs to be controlled, others see it as a welcoming entity to be embrace. Few people are totally indifferent to the emotional impact of a forest.  The vast majority of people have positive feelings about the forest.  I am sure to some degree that a person’s emotional perspective on a forest is related to cultural factors.  As such there is a need to promote a positive respect for a healthy, natural forest.  I am also sure that some of the emotional connection we feel to a forest is hardwired into our genetic makeup.  


Proposed Rating System

Escape from civilization:  One of the great pleasures of visiting the forest is a chance to escape from the everyday annoyances and pressures of civilization.  There are two main aspects to consider: a) how well the traces of civilization can be muted; and b) to what degree can the sensory experience of being in nature be absorbed.  To a degree the size of the forest parcel will impact the extent to which a person can escape civilization, however size cannot be the primary factor in this determination because it would result in large poor quality forests receiving a higher rating than small forests of greater quality.

1.      How large is the contiguous forest under consideration? 

a.       Less than 10 acres (1 point)

b.      Between 10 and 100 acres (2 points)

c.       Between 100 to 500 acres (3 points)

d.      Between 500 and 1000 acres (4 points)

e.       Greater than 1000 acres (5 points)

2.      Are there areas where, aside from the trail itself and informational signs, places from which buildings and roads are not apparent?

a.       Always can see buildings and roads (0 point)

b.      There are a few spots where these cannot be seen (1 point)

c.       There are some areas where these cannot be seen (2 points)

d.      There are many areas where these cannot be seen (3 points)

e.       These things cannot be seen throughout most of the forest (5 Points)

3.      Are there areas where the sounds of traffic, mechanical equipment, and crowds of people cannot be heard?

a.       Always can hear these sounds (0 point)

b.      There are a few spots where these cannot be heard (1 point)

c.       There are some areas where these cannot be heard (2 points)

d.      There are many areas where these cannot be heard (3 points)

e.       These things cannot be heard throughout most of the forest (5 Points)

4.      Are there areas in the forest where the predominant sounds are bird calls, insect and animal calls, wind in leaves, and running stream waters or waterfalls?

a.       These sounds are present but always below the sounds of civilization (0 point)

b.      There are a few spots where these sounds are predominant (1 point)

c.       There are some areas where these sounds are predominant (2 points)

d.      There are many areas where these sounds are predominant (3 points)

e.       These sounds are predominant throughout most of the forest (5 Points)


Something Greater Than Oneself:   Two aspects of this parameter are size and age.   Size is an aesthetic consideration that is amenable to measurement.  People are impressed by trees of great height and by trees of great girth.  The average person is not good at estimating tree heights.  Excluding the trees of phenomenal heights, such as some of the great conifers of the west, people tend to just see trees above a certain height as simply tall.  Their perspective on height is also based not upon some specified footage measurement, but upon how tall a particular tree appears relative to other trees in the stand.  Their height perception scale changes from site to site as the average canopy height of the forest changes.  A tree that would appear to be exceptionally tall in one section of woods would not be noticed in another.   Since perception of height is subjective it is not an ideal parameter for definition purposes.  The girth of trees is something more on the scale of common perception.  The difference in the girth of different trees is easily discerned and fat trees are impressive.  Perhaps the girth value will need to be adjusted for different sites, but in general trees with girths greater than ten feet are impressive.  This means that based upon size as an aesthetic consideration, those sites with trees that tend to grow fatter will be favored over those sites with species that tend to be smaller in girth.  Philosophically a tree that is large for its species deserves some consideration, but as a practical matter a hawthorn a foot in diameter and 45 feet tall, large as it may be for its species, is not physically impressive.  It does not make a person feel dwarfed by its scale.   Trees that are large for their species are important, but that is a category that fits better in a biological characterization of a site, rather than as aesthetic one.

Height (select the best answer)

1.      For a northeastern forest, a site has many trees over 120 feet in height (3 points)

2.      For a northeastern forest, a site has some trees over 120 feet in height (2 points)

3.      For a northeastern forest,  a site has no trees over 120 feet in height (0 points)

Girth (select the best answer)

1.      For a northeastern forest, a site has many trees over ten feet in girth and averages at least two per acre (7 points)

2.      For a northeastern forest, a site has some trees over ten feet in girth, but averages one or less per acre (3 points)

3.      For a northern forest, a site has no trees or only an occasional tree greater than ten feet in girth (0 points)


Age:   Age is clearly an important aesthetic consideration.   Unlike considerations of size, I believe that not only is the appearance of characteristics of age drive the appreciation of the aesthetics of the scene, but that it can be driven as well by the intellectual knowledge that a particular tree or aspect of the forest is old, even if the actual age is belied by its appearance.  Just knowing that a small otherwise unimpressive tree may be three hundred years old, gives the viewer pause and a chance to consider all of the associations of what that age might mean.  Old trees are the most prominent indicator of age.  Characteristics of old trees include among other things: a) often of large size; b) thick, heavily ridged or shaggy bark; c) large heavy branches: d) stag-head branching patterns.  Old trees also exhibit the gnarled, twisted, and sometimes broken top effects of years of exposure to the weather.  Tree ages can be determined by ring counts from cut logs or from core samples.  However it is impractical and not really advisable to core every tree in the forest to determine its age.  A few core samples from a site that demonstrate a great age for the trees sampled can be extrapolated to trees on the site that have not been measured.  It is the concept as well as the appearance of age that matters.  Also to a degree the idea of a tree that is old for its species does have an impact on the intellectual appreciation of the age of the site.  Trees are not the only indicators of age of a forest.  Thick mats of moss and lichens growing on rocks and branches give the feel of age to a site.  The presence of decaying fallen logs covered with new growth is another indicator of age.  Many of these characteristics of age in terms of aesthetics are also characteristics of what is called an old growth forest.  However defining what is an old-growth forest is a more of a regulatory and societal consideration, than an aesthetic one.  Sticking to just the aesthetic aspects in this discussion avoids that political mire.

Tree Age (select the best answer)

1.      There are many trees with the appearance of great age or a measured and extrapolated age of greater than 200 years of age in the stand. (10 points)

2.      There are many trees with the appearance of great age or a measured and extrapolated age of greater than 150 years of age in the stand. (8 points)

3.      There are some trees with the appearance of great age or a measured and extrapolated age of greater than 150 years of age in the stand. (6 points)

4.      There are many trees that are old for their species, within the top 25 percentile for species age, in the region in the stand. (6 points)

5.      There are few if any trees greater than 100 years of age in the stand. (0 points)

Forest Age (select all that apply)

1.      There are thick layers of moss and lichens present on various rock outcroppings, logs, branches, or the forest floor (3 points)

2.      There is an abundance of coarse woody debris on the forest floor including fallen logs that are serving as nurse logs for new growth. (2 points)


Sense of Mystery

1.      There are a variety of tree sizes, ages, and species including large or old trees (5 points)

2.      There are areas that have a generally closed canopy with occasional openings formed by fallen trees (5 points)

3.      There is  high diversity of plant species in the herbaceous layer (5 points)

4.      There is wide variety of ecological niches present in the forest (5 points)

5.      There are standing dead trees and nurse logs present in the forest (5 points)


Survivors in the Forest:  Aside from simple age many trees exhibit characteristics of having survived a harsh life   (select all that apply).

1.      There are areas of trees that have been stunted by the weather or soil to form a canopy much lower than normal for the canopy species in the area, generally less than 25% of their normal heights   (10 points)

2.      There are unusual assemblages of species because of uncommon soil chemistry, examples include things like serpentine barrens.  (10 points)

3.      There are rock outcroppings, or large rock float blocks on which are growing trees with exposed root masses trailing across the rocks or down the sides of the rocks. (rate from 0 to 5 points)

4.      There are large exposed rock faces upon which are growing a high diversity of lichens and mosses.  (rate from 0 to 5 points)


Simple Beauty:  Many of the characteristics that make a forest beautiful are already categorized under other parameters. 

1.      Presence of grand vistas from bluffs or outlooks showing a broad landscape. (5 points)

2.      Presence of waterfalls, flowing streams or other water features   

a.       Flowing stream, pond, or small waterfall  (2 points)

b.      Large pond, small wetland, or series of riffles or small waterfalls (6 points)

c.       Lake,  wetland area, or large waterfall  (10 points)

3.      A deciduous forest that exhibits a colorful fall foliage (5 points)


Ecologic Aesthetic: 

1.      Degree of naturalness  (select all that apply)

a.       There are little or no indications of past logging or farming in the forest (3 points)

b.      There are few invasive or exotic species present that are not native to the area (3 points)

c.       There are standing dead trees and fallen logs indicating the area have been left to develop by natural processes (4 points)

2.      There are rare, uncommon or unusual species of plants or animals present on the site (10 points)

3.      There are rare, uncommon, or unusual assemblages of species or communities present on the site (10 points)

4.      There are portions of the forest that can be considered old-growth based upon the relevant management definitions of old growth (10 points)

5.      There are areas of the forest that are late mature in age and could develop into old growth given time (5 points).


Emotional Connection:  While an emotional connection with a forest is an important aesthetic consideration, it is my opinion that this aspect of the aesthetics is characteristic of the individual rather than of the forest itself.  Therefore it is one that cannot be applied to a rating system of a forest itself.



A prevalent, but unspoken tenant of management decisions, hidden carefully below the surface, is the idea that if something is not explicitly defined, that it need not be considered in any planning process.  Forest aesthetics falls into that category and is rarely given much thought unless there is an outcry by the public.  Trying to define the aesthetic characteristics of a forest is a complex problem, but it serves to bring the matter under consideration.  This document proposes a way to numerically evaluate representative aspects of what are essentially aesthetic criteria for use in forest management decisions.

Continued at:


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Wow Ed. What an important and amazing undertaking.

Quantifying aesthetic value is counterintuitive to me, but some
terminology is necessary to describe and promote appreciation and
protection of forests.

Words like aesthetics and beauty are vague but I see that by using a
point system, you are trying to remove the subjectivity. And perhaps
these are words that get the right attention from management who are
not factoring in any emotional value. Actually using the word
'aesthetics' is great - it's the "science" of beauty.( And when I say
'emotional' I don't only mean 'oh that is so beautiful I want to cry/
smile/etc", but also in a more intangible and profound ways. Forests
and places removed from civilization can be terrifying as well as
awesome to human beings, and we can't seem to grasp the fact that you
don't get one without the other...but that's another topic)

This is a really great approach. I just get depressed about humanity's
need to quantify things in order to understand them. Sorry I'm not
even editing this post for better clarity - the topic is so engrossing
that I will spend hours and hours writing!

Thanks for your great work,

Edward Frank
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Re: [ENTS] Re: On Defining a Forest Aesthetic

In this context I am using the term aesthetics to describe the entire
experience of walking through and experiencing a forest.  The numbers I
guess can be thought of as a select representation of the qualities rather
than an attempt to quantify the entire system.  Please feel free to add
whatever comments or idea you have to the discussion.


Gary A. Beluzo
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Re: [ENTS] Re: On Defining a Forest Aesthetic
The Forest Aesthetics is vitally needed to balance our quantitatively  
biased brudders with a Gestalt of the magnificent.


Mike Leonard
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Defining an aesthetically pleasing forest is different for different people. Just like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

Being a forester, I like to see well managed forest stands stocked with high quality trees with some species diversity and with some scattered wildlife or “den” trees. I don’t mind seeing some slash on the forest floor from a recent timber harvest. The most important thing to me is to make sure the high quality trees that remain are not skinned up by the logging machinery after a harvest. Landowners, however, hate slash and that’s why most of them love the mechanized timber harvesting operations that will chip all the tops for biomass. They like that clean look in the forest. Of course it reduces nutrient recycling but it’s a tradeoff.

Many landowners also like the open park like appearance of a recently thinned forest. I even had one landowner who wanted to kill all the hardwood sprout regeneration to “maintain” his forest!

Landowners want their woodlots to look good. Everything doesn’t have to be chipped but the slash should be lopped up real good so it’s no higher than two feet from the ground. All cut timber should be utilized as much as possible for firewood and pulp after the sawlogs are taken.

I just finished a Forest Management Plan for a 50 acre lot in North Brookfield and the last operator completely trashed the place! The main access road has deep ruts and there are tops all over the place that weren’t sufficiently lopped. In addition, there are many trees that were cut but not processed and one section that was marked but not cut. But the State Service Forester told the landowner that this was “acceptable”! Well the landowner didn’t think so and neither do I.

Now I get the “great” opportunity to clean this mess up.

Anyway that’s my two cents on this thread.


Barry Caselli
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Re: [ENTS] Re: On Defining a Forest Aesthetic
Adding to what Mike said, to me an aesthetically pleasing forest is one that has been left to its own devices- one that hasn't been messed with by humans, at least not in a long time, where the trees are the native species that grow in the area. Whatever grew there is there, whatever didn't grow there isn't there.
In our state forests, there is no timber harvesting. Sometimes they allow private citizens/homeowners to come in to certain areas within marked boundaries, to cut certain trees for firewood. They can only use a chain saw and their own hands and feet, to cut down and haul the wood. It's done in some of the State Forests here in the Pine Barrens, but I'm not sure if it's done in other parts of the state. NJ is too small a state, with too big a population, to have what woods we have ruined or lost because of timber harvesting. It's bad enough that developers are buying up woods (and farms) to build McMansions.
The only things that humans are doing to our forests without cutting them down is the controlled burns here in the Pine Barrens, and of course the ubiquitous illegal dumping.
You couldn't really have commercial timber harvesting in most of our Pine Barrens forests anyway, because there are ruins and historic sites throughout many of the forests. These sites are generally not marked, and would be destroyed or damaged if harvesting were to occur. Besides that, many of our forests are full of rare and endangered plants and animals.

Edward Frank
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Re: [ENTS] Re: On Defining a Forest Aesthetic
I know many foresters like yourself try to do the right thing when it comes to forest management plans.  Some of my grousing had to do with those who simply want to cut and run and by agencies that see a quick profit by cutting public land that should not be cut.  I understand that some people prefer the open feel or park-like feel of the forests.  That is part of what I want to try to address when talking about how an informed aesthetic may be different from what many immediately think of as a proper look for a forest.  This is because many people do not really know what an unaffected forest should look like. 
More in tune with the new forestry of ecosystem management is the idea that aesthetic appreciation should be informed by ecological knowledge, so that what is good ecologically also looks good to us.
I think the criteria I am trying to describe should be one that emphasizes ecological function and natural systems rather than a park like effect.  It is something that needs to be a learned appreciation in many cases.  The idea that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is simply not not true and unacceptable.  There are common threads to what most people find pleasing about a forest setting.  These common threads are what I am trying to identify and rate.  In addition I want to educate the eye of people to appreciate a more naturally functioning ecosystem.  I do not want to by the ideas  am presenting to stop timber production.  I want to develop something that can evaluate these common threads and ecological sensibilities to identify those limited areas that should not be logged.  
I hope this is not the end of your participation in this discussion.  I need other ideas to help shape the process.  Even if I disagree with the ones suggested, the insight they provide is invaluable.
Ed Frank

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Ed,  The peace, beauty, wildlife, tranquility and quite are just a few
of many things that I enjoy about a Forest. As are no redlights,
stopsigns, paved roads, houses, buildings.etc. The blending of trees,
creeks, lakes, rivers throughout the Forest is also something
pleasing. Most Forests drainage are still in somewhat of a natural
state, small creeks meandering through with a soothing effect.
Sunrise-There is nothing more special than a  Sunrise in a Forest.
Black as coal, then dawn to beautiful orange, yellow, to blue skies.
Watching the trees and wildlfe waking up after a long dark night is
something I really enjoy. On the other hand a Sunset can be
breathtaking as well, with of the nocturnal creatures coming out. The
Forest at night is a whole different world, most people don't enjoy
the night Forest, my favorite time is the Full Moon. Lots of wildlife
out at night that you don't usally see in the daytime. Just a few of
things I enjoy in our Forests! Also the each season has a different
effect on me in the Forest, more on this later.   Larry

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Re: [ENTS] Re: On Defining a Forest Aesthetic
I'm deeply engrossed in other things right now and cannot afford the time to adequately respond to the topic.  However, I am a firm believer that the combination of aesthetics, ecological function and perpetual forest mangement is daunting but extremely possible.
I hope this discussion persists long enough so I can get back to it.

Edward Frank
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Re: [ENTS] Re: On Defining a Forest Aesthetic
Both areas had characteristics that make them worthwhile.  In terms of aesthetics I would have to say the north rim area would rate higher.  I will need to go through the listings and see what the numbers show.  The north area had more hemlocks and the conifers to me makes the scene seem more primeval. There were grand vistas looking down into the gorge which contained a stream with rapids and small falls.  The chestnut oaks in particular showed their age.  They were twisted and bent by age and the weather.  Some of the oaks had the greater than 10 foot girth stems listed in my criteria.  The beech trees commonly reached over 100 feet tall.  I would thin the hemlock- beech-chestnut oak assemblage was unusual for the area. 
The southern area had large trees in some areas and represented a larger contiguous area.  Some of the trees had the thick bark and other characteristics associated with age, but most of the trees seemed younger.  It lacked the vistas and the flowing streams in the area we visited.  There was some more diversity of plants in the herbaceous layer, but this early in the season, how diverse is hard to judge.  This are was one of almost entirely deciduous hardwoods and at the time of the visit without their foliage.  So a deciduous forest varies in its feel for more dramatically with the changing seasons than does a conifer forest.  It was nice, but in terms of aesthetics I would rate the northern rim area higher,
As for the aesthetic listing criteria, a response from Dale Luthringer pointed out to me some structural problems with how  have written the section dealing with water features.  That needs to be fixed.  I also will certainly need to revise the numbers assigned to various factors, but there needed to be a place to start the process.  Simply talking about liking this or not liking that was  not progressing the subject toward any discrete criteria,... so I provided the article as a next step.