Research

Mission: To improve our understanding of how people who live in rural, WUI, and urban landscapes influence and are influenced by natural environments; and to create and provide tools, models and information to support decision makers in formulating policies and guidelines to maximize ecosystem benefits for these environments.

1. Develop fundamental and applied social science knowledge for managing complex forest and people interactions to promote healthy forests and human well-being.

People receive different types of benefits from forests and natural resources. They think about and value them in different ways and use, manage, and appreciate forest resources through many different forms of social relationships and organization. People’s relationships to forest resources often vary in systematic ways by social group, for example race and ethnicity, gender, class, and urban/rural residency. Furthermore, with changing land use, climates, and disturbance regimes, people become more vulnerable to environmental risks. Research is needed to understand the different relationships that diverse landowners and stakeholders have with forests and the social, economic, and ecological outcomes of these relationships. This information is critically important to managers and policy makers as they seek to provide desirable and fair environmental and social outcomes.

1a. Private Forest Values and Uses

This problem examines the many ways people value and use private forests in the South. Private forests represent an important source of products and environmental services for individuals and society, including timber, non-timber forest products, wildlife, biomass for energy, watershed services, and recreational opportunities. Forest values and uses are influenced by broader economic, social, and cultural patterns, as well as by policies, programs, and outreach activities. A variety of social structural factors (for example, race and ethnicity, gender, and class) are important in understanding variation in forest values and uses. The relationships between forest landowners, human communities, and forest ecosystems will be studied across the rural to urban continuum.

1b. Stakeholders, Diversity and National Forests

There is a critical need to better evaluate the processes that influence public interactions with National Forests in the South, with a particular focus on minority populations. As globalization, migration, and immigration continue to reshape the racial and ethnic makeup of the South, it is urgently important to understand the relationships of diverse populations to national forests.

1c. Threats to Forests and People

Social vulnerabilities, in terms of poverty, English language proficiency, and lack of information about vital natural resources are persistent characteristics of southern, rural communities; and in many instances social marginalization occurs simultaneously with environmental vulnerabilities. This problem areas evaluates the impacts of changing environmental conditions on people across southern landscapes, with particular attention to socially vulnerable populations. Fire, insects, invasive plants, climate change, and other factors are changing southern forest environments and the benefits that people receive from them, bringing about risks and threats to people’s livelihoods, well-being, and valued resources. These changes may disproportionately impact certain socially vulnerable groups, either because of their locations or their ability to respond and adapt to change.

2. Develop fundamental social, economic, and biological knowledge that can be used to provide and maintain sustainable outdoor recreation opportunities and benefits.

Recreation access to forestland, both public and private, has long been considered a cultural tradition as well a major source of benefit to the American public. As both American society and our natural environment evolve, understanding and maintaining sustainable access to nature based recreation resources becomes more challenging, while remaining a Forest Service priority. Research, both nationally and in the South, exploring the complexities, tradeoffs, and distributional effects of nature based recreation and tourism is fundamental to addressing at least two of the Agency’s major mandates, i.e., provide and sustain benefits to the American people, and sustain and enhance outdoor recreation.

2a. Recreation Benefits

Outdoor recreation is an important ecosystem service that provides multiple benefits to participants: physical, psychological, and economic. To enhance access to these benefits and understand tradeoffs associated therewith, public and private land managers need to understand better visitor preferences for recreation opportunities and settings, and the tradeoffs associated with management actions related to such. Research is needed to (a) assess visitor preferences and values for nature based recreation access and management alternatives through various monetary and nonmonetary metrics; (b) understand factors influencing recreation visitor behavior and satisfaction and the distributional effects of recreation access to public and private land across social and biophysical dimensions; (c) assess the efficacy and equity effects of management tools like access fees and payment to private landowners for providing recreation services.

2b. Recreation Use

As discussed, the US population is growing while at the same time structurally changing. Because of these dynamics, in conjunction with short and long term management information needs, it is vitally important to monitor current recreation use and to refine methods of projecting future use as population, land use, climate, and other socio-economic drivers change. Thus, there is a need to measure and model present and future recreation participation and use at national, regional, and sitelevel scales. Research needed includes (a) continuing national and regional nature-based participation projection models as mandated by the Resources Planning Act; (b) measurement and methods improvement for forest and site-level visitation estimation and forecasting. Moreover, there is a need to understand better the effect of recreation visitation on the natural environment given a fixed public land base, and diminishing access to an increasingly fragmented private land base. Under these scenarios, it is likely that outdoor recreation venues will be increasingly impacted from a biophysical perspective as the number of enthusiasts increases, particularly in urban proximal and Wilderness settings. Thus, to maintain sustainable access to outdoor recreation resources it will be essential to (c) evaluate the biophysical impacts of recreation on forest ecosystems by examining the relationships between human use intensity and consequent effects on soils, fauna, and flora; and (d) assess the interactions between increasing visitation, declining and fragmented land bases, including Wilderness and protected areas, and new recreation technologies on ecological integrity, social carrying capacity, and sustainability.

2c. Tourism and Development

Tourism is a key industry and is significant nationally and internationally. The World Tourism Organization estimates that approximately 10 percent of the world’s economic activity is related to tourism. Natural resource based tourism can be particularly important to rural areas as they evolve from extractive to more sustainable economies. Research is needed to provide public and private land management strategies related to tourism development. Specifically, research is needed to (a) explore the effects of nature-based recreation opportunities and management alternatives on amenity migration, local economic impacts, rural community economic growth, and rural community well-being; (b) assess how urban and urbanizing environments may provide multiple opportunities for outdoor recreation and heritage tourism and the type and quality of personal and societal benefits derived from them.

2d. Recreation and Public Health

Emerging research generally suggests a positive correlation between nature based recreation and public health. However, detailed relationships for populations in rural and urban settings and the health effects of access to structured and unstructured outdoor recreation and leisure opportunities are largely unknown, particularly for at-risk populations and youth. Therefore, research is needed to (a) examine the effects of access to urban parks and green spaces on physical and psychological well-being of local residents and (b) determine the contribution of access to public and private forestlands to public health.

3. Provide knowledge, strategies and tools to understand how changing land use affects environmental health and subsequently community well-being

Today, more people live in cities than at any other time in the history of the United States; yet, we know relatively little about reciprocal interactions between social and ecological systems. For instance, how do changes in social systems affect ecological systems and visa versa? Without this knowledge, we cannot effectively manage social and ecological systems to maximize ecosystem benefits in urban and urbanizing landscapes. Quantifying these interactions is also paramount if we are going to lessen the effects of climate change on urban populations and increase the resiliency of cities to catastrophic events. This research priority has three components: 1) land use change, 2) human health, and 3) resiliency building. Benefits from this research will improve natural resource management across multiple scales in urban and urbanizing landscapes.

3a. Assess how changing land use affects social and ecological systems in urban and urbanizing landscapes

Between now and 2050, the US population is projected to increase by over 100 million people, and 80 percent of the population in 2050 is projected to live in urban landscapes. To accommodate this growth, a 50 percent increase in building infrastructure will be needed. Natural ecosystems will need to be converted to urban land uses. The effect of land-use change on natural systems is well documented. What is lacking is an understanding how ecological and social systems change, interactively, after landscape modification and the subsequent effects on ecosystem services.

3b. Advance understanding of changes of land use on human health to link community well-being to environmental health

The associated shift from forest to urban lands use will have significant, negative implications for water quality and watershed stability. As a consequence of the increased pollution from forest losses, 7 habitat for disease vectors such as mosquitoes may be enhanced, thereby increasing human risk to diseases such as West Nile Virus, Dengue Fever, and Chickangunya. Scientific evidence of linking land-use change, levels of contaminants in water, occurrence of arboviruses, and human health are lacking. Concomitantly, riparian habitats have been shown to significantly reduce pollution entering streams, principally nitrogen, but most of this research has been done for the piedmont region of the South. Similar research on the coastal plain needs to be conducted to determine of efficacy of vegetation on the denitrification process.

3c. Advance understanding of changes in land use as they relate to urban resiliency to catastrophic storms

The intensity and severity of storms are portended to increase with climate change. The economic costs, socially and ecologically, of these storms to cities can be huge. Similarly, economic traumas can significantly affect a city’s viability. To increase a city’s resilience to these catastrophic events or traumas, vegetation may play a key role in a city’s adaptive strategies to mitigate losses and reduce vulnerability. Yet, we know very little about vegetation response after traumatic events in urban landscapes or how vegetation patterns pre- and post-trauma are affected by changing social contexts.

4. Develop critical understanding of the interplay between socio-cultural characteristics and natural resources

This research area focuses on socio-cultural groups in the South and the nation, some of whom may be described as socially vulnerable because of wealth, language, and cultural differentials between them and members of the majority culture. The research examines socially vulnerable populations and their involvement with local, naturebased environments at scales ranging from the urban neighborhood to rural locales. Of particular interest is how access to environmental amenities like urban green spaces and nature-based outdoor recreation areas may help to redress longstanding social inequities Problem 4 is supported by Executive Order 12898 issued in 1994, which specifies the federal government’s role and responsibility in examining the environmental justice implications of agency practices. This mandate is reinforced by the 2011 Memorandum of Understanding on Environmental Justice and Executive Order 12898. The Forest Service’s ongoing commitment to environmental justice is evidenced, in part, by expanding environmental justice activities from a primary focus on the NEPA process to include local-level projects involving targeted communites. Research plays an integral role in the agency’s goals to redress inequities by assessing the outcomes of specific programming and by establishing empirically-based studies to evaluate minority and lower income group access and engagement with resources included within the agency’s purview.

4a. Theorize the interactions between urban minority communities and nature interaction in southern cities

Numerous studies document the biophysical, social, and psychological benefits of nature interaction; however, distribution and access to these resources is uneven, with racial and ethnic minority populations typically being more constrained in their engagement with nature and natural resources. This irregular relationship is especially true for urban populations and environments; yet the interface between communities and nature in the city is more complex. It is not simply (or always) the case that poor and minority communities have no access, in an absolute sense, to urban green spaces. Rather, continually shifting demographics and remaking of both 8 central city and suburban neighborhoods along social, racial, and cultural lines reproduce local ecologies that interact with residents in various ways; these resources convey both tangible and intangible benefits to residents, but the harnessing and attention to such benefits varies widely depending upon the various capitals (human, social) that residents bring with them to communities.

4b. Advance understanding of racial/ethnic minorities and nature-based outdoor recreation

African Americans make up a large proportion of the population in some rural communities adjacent to national forest lands in the South. Yet, African Americans are conspicuously absent from national forest recreation areas, even in counties adjacent to National Forests that contain black populations of 50 percent or greater. At the same time, an increasing number of immigrant groups are settling in these places. Research shows that Hispanics are visiting state parks and national forests in the South with greater frequency than African Americans. More than forty years of research has established that African Americans continue to be less likely than Whites to participate in nature-based outdoor recreation, other factors being equal. Such differences are routinely attributed to racial differences in preferences for leisure; however, there has been little theory development or empiricism devoted to explicating which aspects of “race,” better account for such differences--whether sub-cultural values, historical or contemporary antagonisms (i.e., racial conflict), or other factors related to marginal societal positioning.

4c. Expand heirs’ property estimation

Another pertinent issue in the rural South is the prevalence of “heirs’ property” among limited resource and minority landowners. Heirs’ property is property with unclear or clouded title, meaning that numerous individuals may have a legal interest in land. The quasi-communal nature of such private property ownership can result in disinterest in the land because of the many disincentives associated with such land ownership, as heirs’ property ownership effectively prohibits owners from using such properties as collateral for loans, selling resources such as timber, or other otherwise engaging in land improvement activities. Heirs’ property contributes to land loss and wealth abatement, typically among rural, lower-income populations but is also purported to be pervasive in urban areas and to contribute to urban blight. Heirs’ property prevalence has been discussed extensively for African American communities across the South. Heirs’ properties also pervade rural Appalachian communities and Native American lands; however, few studies have been devoted to estimating the economic value of such lands, particularly the forest resources contained on these lands or to understanding the economic or cultural consequences of this land ownership form for populations other than African Americans.


The mission of the Integrating Human and Natural Systems Research Work Unit is defined in the Research Work Unit Charter, which is updated and renewed every five years.

View our Unit Charter document →