Build beautiful forests and they will come.
It sounds simple, but forest officials often wonder what features make public wooded areas appealing to visitors.
Two researchers from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale believe they have found some answers - through special studies on scenic attractiveness.
"People think beauty is an intangible quality found in the eye of the beholder, but there's a way to measure it," said SIUC psychologist John Hetherington, a researcher on the project. "And the general public has a good grasp of what's attractive and what they want to see in their forests."
For 10 years, Hetherington has researched scenic attractiveness through a psychophysical approach, which systematically relates people's reactions to forests to the landscape's appearance.
"If there needs to be some kind of timber management and the perception is negative, then the (U.S.) Forest Service needs to know about it," he said. And the Forest Service isn't only using this research to develop a good business relationship with park visitors. It's the law.
In 1969, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act, requiring, among other things, that forest managers prepare impact statements for their actions.
This spring, Hetherington will show about 300 randomly selected Missouri residents slides of various scenes from sites in Mark Twain National Forest, Doe Run State Forest, Ozark National Scenic Riverways and portions of University of Missouri-owned forest near Wappapello.
Participants will rate each scene on a scale of one to 10 - one representing the most ugly forest; 10 being most attractive. Hetherington said he was amazed at the consistency of subjects' responses.
"Regardless of their age, gender, race or socio-economic background, they all pretty much agree on what they like and dislike," he said.
In general, those surveyed tend to like lots of green grass surrounding large, evenly spaced trees, with enough distance between them to have good sight lines.
"Water is always a plus, too," Hetherington said. "It can be the worst scene you've ever seen, but if there's water it'll still rate high in perception." Usually subjects react negatively to signs of human invasion, including trash, stumps and buildings.
"Our reaction to buildings is ironic, though, because we build them, yet we don't like to see them," Hetherington said. …