Enhancing Recreation on Small Woodlands

Photo: Jeffrey DeBell
Photo 1: This newly built trail will allow the owners to comfortably descend steep slopes to the lower part of their property, something they almost never did without the trail. Photo: Jeffrey DeBell

In surveys of family forest owners and their motivations, the top-ranked reasons for owning woodlands usually involve things like enjoying nature, privacy and tranquility, seeing wildlife, and just getting away from the noise and pace of urban life. These activities and goals can be grouped under the broad umbrella of recreation, which may include everything from traditional activities such as camping or hiking to the more recent idea of “forest bathing” imported from Japanese culture.

One way of thinking about recreation is in terms of providing experience. When you think about experience, it is important to include people in the equation, because the best experiences are a combination of enjoying the woods as well as the company of friends and family. Enhancing experience is another objective that can be integrated with goals such as keeping the woods healthy, enhancing wildlife habitat, generating income, minimizing fire risk, etc.

There is not a great deal of information available that specifically focuses on enhancing woodland experience, but it can mostly be accomplished using techniques already familiar to woodland owners, such as planting, managing understory vegetation, thinning, pruning, and harvesting trees. To help you think about the planning considerations, a useful place to look is large public gardens, which have some characteristics relevant to managing recreation on woodland properties. For instance, the goals are similar – creating an enjoyable experience among plants and the natural world. Also, the scale of public gardens, often in the tens of acres, is similar to that of many woodlands.

The need to tend the property in order to favor desired plants and suppress undesired plants exists in both the gardens and the woods. There are certainly important differences as well, such as in how the properties are financially supported, frequent use of irrigation and fertilizer in gardens, and the number of people to be accommodated, but some of the design concepts from public gardens translate well to family owned woodlands.

The following ideas can be used to enhance the experience of being in the woods on your property. These are not intended to be separate from other management activities that you have planned, but rather another set of considerations to work into the overall decision. The art of forestry is not in the technical knowledge required to maximize specific objectives, but in the ability to weave together the tradeoffs of different options to achieve the best overall balance for your goals.


Think About Who, What and When

It is useful to start by thinking about who will be using the area, what they will be doing, and when this will happen. Knowing these things will help clarify needs. For instance, you might modify trail design to better accommodate people who would have difficulty with steeper or more rugged conditions. A track to ride mountain bikes would set up differently than a route for riding horses. And camping in cold or wet conditions might lead you to design the site a little differently than if it were only used in warm, dry weather.


Create Contrasting Conditions

It will be more interesting to visit different parts of your property if there are a variety of conditions to see. In forestry, we refer to these contrasting areas as stands, while in garden design they are often thought of as “rooms” having differing themes. If you are lucky, your property may already have a lot of variation. However, it is common on small parcels to have fairly uniform conditions across the whole ownership. If your property consists of older trees and dense woods, then it is fairly easy to create variation. You can use harvesting to introduce areas with young trees and open conditions, or thinning to establish contrast between dense patches where the overstory trees dominate and more widely spaced areas where enough light makes it through the crowns to allow a lush understory.

If your property is currently covered in very young forest, the options are more limited, but you can still use planting of different tree or shrub species to create patches with differing appearances or character. It is very important to think about scale when defining areas, and to size the areas appropriately for your property. On a small parcel, each area might only be 1 or 2 acres, while if you own a hundred acres, you could have zones of 5 to 20 acres. Creating contrast is not only useful for human interest, but also for wildlife use. If it looks and feels different to you, it often has different values for wildlife as well. Increasing the number of forest conditions typically increases the number of wildlife species that will be present on your property.


Identify Special Places

Even the smallest woodland properties normally have some unique features or places. The analog in garden design is focal points. These are things that draw our eye or encourage us to move to explore the area in more detail. Examples might include a particularly large or picturesque tree, a moss-covered log or rock, a patch of a favorite woodland plant, or perhaps a spot with a view to the distance. Sometimes, a place can be special not because of its physical characteristics but because of memories of things that happened there. Examples might be the memory of camping or picking berries or sitting around the campfire with family or friends. Regardless of whether it is a physical feature or memories of past experiences, these spots add character to the woods and enrich the experience of being there.


Provide Access and Wayfinding

The most important step toward enhancing woodland experience is making it easy to get around in the woods and find your way from one area to the next. Public gardens are very good at this, and always have a well-maintained system of paths with maps showing how the paths connect the different areas of the garden. If you do nothing else to improve recreation, build trails, even if they are very short to begin with. It will make a huge difference in how often you walk through your woods (See Photo 1).

Better yet, it will make it possible for others who may struggle with moving through the brush, such as the youngest and oldest members of the family, to join you in the experience. Trails should be designed with both the users and the use in mind. If the trails will be used by anyone who is not very familiar with the property, then it is helpful to having signage or marking at intersections and periodically along the route. These should relate to an overall map, and can simply be colored routes or can be named for features or places that they visit. Actually naming the different areas and spots will make this easier, and will create an easy way to communicate where you are going.

When designing your trail system, it is important that it take you to all of the different contrasting areas and special places. You may not be able to build trails to get you to all of these places right away, but if you plan it that way at the start, then you will end up with a better system as you are able to build it out over time. A great place to get started with thinking about trails is a publication called “Trail Design for Small Properties” by Mel Baughman. A free copy of the publication can be downloaded from the University of Minnesota’s digital conservancy website. You also can find Baughman’s book in several formats by searching on the internet.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
Photo 2: Trimmed brush and pruned trees at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello echo his ideas for aesthetic enhancement. In this case, a lawn was planted (to be consistent with his writings), but leaving natural ground cover intact would maintain more of the natural woodland character while providing the open views into the woods that many people prefer. Photo: Jeffrey DeBell

Improve Visibility

When social scientists study human preferences for forest appearance, they find that most people like open, park-like areas, where they can see a distance into the woods. However, in many areas, the understory is a thicket of dead branches and brush, making it hard to see though, let alone walk through. When not busy with getting our country started, Thomas Jefferson gave some thought to this, and suggested that the woods could be made more beautiful by thinning out some of the dense underbrush and pruning up the trees. He even specified that this be done in an area of his woods at Monticello (see Photo 2). A word of caution is in order with this idea, because if taken too far, it can degrade wildlife habitat, be extremely expensive, and actually undermine the very goal of enhancing beauty. If done thoughtfully, however, it is compatible with maintaining wildlife habitat, can link nicely with FireWise principles, and enhance the beauty of your property.

The idea is to create some vistas through the woods by removing the taller brush along a sight line while leaving the lower understory, below knee height, intact. These vistas should be located to provide views from trails or areas where you expect to spend time. Done in this way, much of the taller shrub layer, which is important for habitat, is left intact across most of the property, and costs are minimized. The vistas where the shrubs are removed can curve off in the distance, suggesting that they continue farther than they actually do.

If you are doing this thinning near a structure on a woodland property, removing shrubs and pruning up trees dovetails nicely with FireWise recommendations. A useful reference to help strike a balance is “Wildlife-Friendly Fuels Reduction in Dry Forests of the Pacific Northwest” by Nicole Strong and Ken Bevis, which is available online. While this publication is targeted toward dry forests, the ideas can be adapted for creating vistas in any forest type.


Make Resting and Gathering Spots

Resting and gathering spots can serve several purposes. Resting spots can be used to break up a longer hike into smaller pieces, making it easier for those with less endurance to join you on your walks. Gathering spots can be places to enjoy the company of family and friends. Think of sitting around the campfire or playing a game of horseshoes. Having such places ensures the ability of everyone to participate, regardless of their physical abilities to join you in other areas of the woods.

eating along a trail
Photo 3: Seating along a trail made by cutting rounds from a log is simple and inexpensive. Photo: Jeffrey DeBell

Finally, making some spots to sit quietly will help you appreciate the woods in a way that doesn’t happen as much when you are moving. If you sit very quietly for a while, you will find that the birds begin to sing more and flit around, and you may even have other wildlife move past you if you are quiet and the wind doesn’t reveal your scent. Places to rest and gather can range from very simple seating (see Photo 3) to a picnic or camping shelter that will keep you dry during rainy weather.


Plan Activities That Create Connection

The more time you spend with friends and family in the woods, the more the connections to the woods and to each other will be strengthened. The steps described above will help to make those experiences more enjoyable, but you still have to get out there and spend time. So even when you have work to do on your land, be sure to reserve some time every day you’re there to just relax and enjoy your surroundings. If you have kids along, set up activities like scavenger hunts to get them involved with exploring and becoming familiar with the natural world. And of course, sit around the campfire every evening you can without getting too close to periods of high fire danger. As the REI marketing slogan urges, opt outside, and do that on your own land as much as possible!

By Jeffrey DeBell, forester, Cascade Woodland Design, jeff.debell@cwd-forestry.com