Valuing Forests

Edward Frank
March 1, 2010

Valuing Forests

By Edward Frank, March 1, 2010

How do we value forests?  As a society we place a variety of different values of forests depending on our own personal perspectives.  Probably the first value many think of when considering forests is their value as timber.  Beyond this forests have value as a recreational resource, as spiritual touchstones, and biological reserves, and as parts of larger ecologic systems among others.   I am proposing an organizational framework encompassing many of these values so that they can be better understood and evaluated.  

1)      Timber production and other Extractive Resources

2)      CO2 Sequestration

3)      Recreational/Park values and Other Social values

4)      Educational Values

5)      Historical, Cultural, and Archaeological Values

6)      Aesthetic Values

7)      Spiritual Values

8)      Biological Reserves, Significant Forest Patches, Endangered Species

9)      Large Forested Blocks and Corridors

10)   Buffer or Component for Other Natural System

Timber and Extractive Resources (include mining, gas, oil, and water)

Timber production is the first forest utilization that many people think of with regard to forest values.   We certainly need lumber to build houses and wood to produce paper products.  We need forests in kept production for these uses.  Better management practices in maintaining our forests are needed in many cases.  We need to manage these forests currently in production so that, as a renewable resource, they can be harvested by future generations as well as ours.  Other resources are also commonly extracted from our forests in the form of oil and gas production.  The mining of coal and metal ores can completely destroy the surface landscape.  The economic and environmental impacts of these extractive activities need to be considered as well as the monetary value of the products extracted.   In the distant past when humans were typically organized as hunter-gatherer societies, forest resources like acorns, pine-nuts, chestnuts, fruits, and other plants were gathered from the forest in a generally non-destructive manner.  This pattern is currently being followed by some indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin on a limited commercial basis to both provide economic resources to their community and to preserve their forest resources for the future.

Carbon Dioxide Sequestration

Current concerns with global warming have brought to the forefront the potential for carbon dioxide sequestration by forests and by old growth forests in particular.  The scientific literature on the subject is readily available in various journals and books.  A quick search on the web will find dozens of references to the role of forests in carbon dioxide sequestration.  This information will not be repeated here as it is both voluminous and readily available.

Recreational/Park Values

There has been a large amount of research on trying to quantify some of the benefits of spaces like city parks.  Some of these ideas can be applied to the broader concept of forests.  In the forefront of this research are groups like the Trust for Public Land.  The big caveat to these valuations is if we put a monetary value on a resource it implies that these resources can be sold for a given amount.  Some resources are priceless or irreplaceable and cannot be sold.  I am not going to go over all of these valuations here but here are links to a few reports that can provide a starting point for research in this area.

1) Measuring the Economic Value of a City Park System

 In 2003, The Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence gathered two dozen park experts and economists in Philadelphia for a colloquium to analyze how park systems economically benefit cities. Based on this conversation and subsequent consultation with other leading economists and academics, the center identified seven attributes of city park systems that provide economic value and can be measured. While not every aspect of a park system can be quantified, this report examines seven major factors:

.Property value


.Direct use


.Community cohesion

.Clean water

.Clean air

While the science of city park economics is still in its infancy, TPL has worked to carefully consider and analyze these values. After describing the value factor and the rationale for calculating it, this report provides real-life example of the mathematical outcomes, based on the first five test cases undertaken in this program-the cities of Washington, D.C., San Diego, Boston, Sacramento, and Philadelphia. 30 pages.  Download:


2) The Health Benefits of Parks  

As the nation's leading conservation group creating parks in and around cities, The Trust for Public Land launched its Parks for People initiative in the belief that every American child should enjoy convenient access to a nearby park or playground.  This new, fully footnoted white paper-The Health Benefits of Parks: How Parks Help Keep Americans and Their Communities Fit and Healthy-draws from the latest research to outline ways in which parks support and promote healthy lifestyles, particularly in cities, where eighty percent of Americans live, work...and play!   Intended for parks and open space advocates and professionals, The Health Benefits of Parks is intended to make the case for parks as a wise community investment. Topics include:

.Parks, greenways, and trails enable and encourage people to exercise.

.Exposure to nature improves psychological and social health.

.Play is critical for child development.

.Parks help build healthy, stable communities.


National statistics on the economic benefits of outdoor recreation  (2006) show

"From birdwatchers to mountain bikers, the active set accounts for almost $300 billion in annual retail sales and contributes more than twice that to the U.S. economy, according to a Boulder, Colo.-based trade group.  Outdoor recreationists shell out $46 billion a year on the gear they need to hit the woods, the rivers and the slopes, according to a recent report by the Outdoor Industry Foundation. But they spend five times that much ($243 billion) on all the extras - food, lodging, entertainment and transportation.   "We've always known we have a larger economic impact - now we have the data to support it," said Kim Coupounas, board chairman of the Outdoor Industry Association and co-founder and CEO of GoLite, a Boulder-based apparel and gear maker.  The study does more than measure retail sales. It also tracks the "ripple effects" of the spending. In all, it estimates active outdoor recreation pumps $730 billion annually into the U.S. economy.  Among other findings:

1)      The industry supports about 6.5 million jobs.

2)      Annual tax revenues add up to $88 billion a year.

"The trade group hopes the fresh statistics, the most comprehensive report it has commissioned, will help it make a stronger case for protecting the wilds from development, oil drilling and the like."

Recreation participation graph from OutsideHub

Educational Values

It is clear that a critical aspect of the future of our forests and of the environment in general is dependent on our children's appreciation and understanding of the natural world.  "A Nature Conservancy-funded study to be published in August 2006 found that per capita visits to U.S. national parks have been declining since 1987, after having risen for the previous 50 years. The drop occurs as the use of electronic media is on the rise - something that researchers call "evidence of a fundamental shift away from people's appreciation of nature."    

In Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2006), author and chairman of Children & Nature Network, Richard Louv, presents compelling evidence that children who do not experience nature have more mental and psychological disorders such as attention deficit disorder and depression, and physical problems, including obesity. On the flip side, children who spend time in natural places are more creative and well-balanced.

The National Wildlife Federations in its - Why Be Out There Campaign - states: "American childhood has moved indoors during the last two decades, taking a mental and physical toll on today's kids. The negative impact of decreased time outdoors includes a doubling of the childhood obesity rate -- accompanied by an incremental hundred billion dollar cost to our health care system -- as well as declining creativity, concentration and social skills. Some say it takes a village to raise a child. We say: it takes a backyard, a playground, a park. Studies show outdoor time helps children grow lean and strong, enhances imaginations and attention spans, decreases aggression, and boosts classroom performance. In addition, children who spend time in nature regularly are shown to become better stewards of the environment. "

More on this subject is discussed in the ENTS Children's Activities section and in the links provided there.  I am sure this is an area where ENTS could make a valuable contribution in helping to encourage outdoor based educational activities and outdoor activities in general.            

Historical, Cultural, and Archaeological Values

These three aspects of forest values are all interrelated with the boundaries between them indistinct and ever changing.  Generally a historic tree or forest is a location in which a famous event has occurred.   Examples that recently come to mind include the death of a witness tree at Gettysburg that oversaw the Abraham Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Agrees after the Civil War.  There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of trees still alive at Gettysburg National Battlefield that were present during the hostilities there, but these ones noted as historical trees.  Other examples are forests growing around the homes of historical figures, or tree that were planted by historical figures.  There are examples of trees that were witnesses to the signing of historical documents, hanging trees, or trees and forests that were the location of a variety of significant events.  These are events that have taken place in historical times for which there is a written record.

Culturally significant trees and forests are a more complex problem.  These represent forest locations and trees that are important to the overall culture and that are part of the fabric of a society and people.    In recent times these might be represented by great trees contained in community parks or special sections forests.  

An example of a culturally significant tree, at least on a local level was Herbie the Elm in Yarmouth, Maine.  The tree died and was cut down in January 2010, and the community expressed its grief at the loss of this tree. The tree was 217 years old by ring count at the time of its death. Yarmouth Maine is a small town with less than 9000 people.  But even in this setting I think people tend to get disconnected with the forests and the natural world.  They work in stores and gas stations and spend most of their days indoors dealing with the modern world and other people.   Trees like Herbie the Elm represent not only the history of the community, but a way to vicariously keep in touch with that natural world.  It serves as a conduit or connection between the world of their everyday lives and the primordial forest.  The loss of a tree like Herbie is not just the loss of an individual tree.  It is a loss of ties with memories that happened under the watchful eye of this ancient monarch.  It is a severance of the connection between the individual and the world outside of modern day society.  It is a mourning not only of the loss of the tree itself, but also of what the tree represents.   There were 79 comments posted in honor of the tree in a local newspaper website.  It was a loss of a part of the local culture.

Here in the United States and Canada the indigenous peoples have a strong and vibrant oral tradition.  In the past, without a written language these oral traditions were used to pass down the traditions and history of these peoples from one generation to the next.  They included accounts of great events and individuals of legend.  They included stories reflecting the religious beliefs of the peoples.  They included teaching stories used to pass on the knowledge needed to survive, knowledge needed to judge right from wrong, and knowledge that defined them as a people.  The locations, forests, and trees featured in these stories are part of the cultural heritage of these people and are of value to them as well as a vital aspect of our larger society as a whole.

A forest of archaeological value is simply one in that contains an important archaeological site or contains an unexcavated archaeological site.

The following are a selection of definitions and criteria used for various historical and cultural registries and can serve as examples of how a historical, cultural, or archaeological designation for a forest or tree might be developed.

National Registry of Historic Places:  To be considered eligible, a property must meet the National Register Criteria for Evaluation. This involves examining the property's age, integrity, and significance.  Age and Integrity. Is the property old enough to be considered historic (generally at least 50 years old) and does it still look much the way it did in the past?  Significance. Is the property associated with events, activities, or developments that were important in the past? With the lives of people who were important in the past? With significant architectural history, landscape history, or engineering achievements? Does it have the potential to yield information through archeological investigation about our past?

National Historic Landmarks:   are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.

A National Historic Site: usually contains a single historical feature that was directly associated with its subject. Derived from the Historic Sites Act of 1935, a number of historic sites were established by secretaries of the Interior, but most have been authorized by acts of Congress. At present, there are 79 national historic sites in the National Park System.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a site (such as a forest, mountain, lake, desert, monument, building, complex, or city) that is on the list that is maintained by the international World Heritage Programme .  A World Heritage Site is a place of either cultural or physical significance.

Cultural criteria

I. "to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius";

II. "to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design";

III. "to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared";

IV. "to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history";

V. "to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change";

VI. "to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria.)

Aesthetic Value of Forests

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.  I have previously tried to address many of these issues in the article "On Defining a Forest Aesthetic" posted on the ENTS website at: On Defining A Forest Aesthetic Additional discussions on forest aesthetics are also posted on the ENTS website at:  Further discussions are ongoing on the ENTS BBS:

 Spiritual Values

People commonly report experiencing a spiritual or emotional awakening upon entering a old forest.  This is certainly something that should be considered as an aspect of forest values.  The difficulty lies in the fact that these experiences are very subjective in nature, even more so than the other values being discussed.   That makes it hard to quantify a spiritual value.  I do not have any suggestions on how to approach this quandary at this time.

Biological Reserves, Significant Forest Patches, and Endangered Species

We are often faced with the question of what makes this patch of forest "significant' or mundane. This is a forest value that I was trying to address in the Characteristics of Significant Forest Patches discussion  In that discussion I proposed five basic criteria for a forest to be significant.  

1) Large trees: This is one of the most straight-forward of the criteria. The size of a tree is fairly easily measured. A forest with a number of particularly large trees, and even better large trees of several different species is certainly significant. The size of the trees found on a site needs to be considered with respect to the local area, perhaps the state, as well as the broader regional scale. If we looked at only the national champions for the species as the basis for determining what was large, then every site would need to compete with the GSMNP.  Few sites could compare with the great trees found there. But a more reasonable comparison recognizes that there are regional differences in the size to which trees can grow. In an area where the maximum size is much shorter, that shorter height should be the basis for determining relative size of the trees in the region. Also in areas that have been virtually cut bare in recent history, a forest with large trees could be considered significant even if it was not large on a broader regional scale.

2) Old Trees: Clearly a forest with a number of old trees is significant. Much of the Eastern United States was virtually clear-cut in the past 100 to 150 years. Trees older than that are uncommon and significant. It is hard to estimate the ages of trees by appearance alone, but as someone gains familiarity with a species with occasional real ages from core samples or cross sections better estimates of the ages of trees can be made. As always some people are more conservative with their age estimates while others tend to more liberal, but at a particular location or set of locations, even people with different perspectives likely will be able to agree on what are the older specimens. For many of the less-long lived species there is little actual core data available upon which to base age estimates. The focus of dendrochronology efforts is typically to find long lived specimens to determine longer and older tree ring chronologies and for the most part the trees not known to be long lived are ignored.

3) Trees with character: This is a somewhat subjective category, but a particular tree or forest segment with these characteristics would likely be recognized by a wide number of people. Josh Kelly a couple years ago used the phrase "aged with adversity" and this is really the focus of this characteristic. Don Bertolette in response said, "I really liked your phrasing "aged with adversity", as some of the oldest trees of several species that come to mind (foxtail pine in the Sierra Nevada's, bristlecone pine in the Sierras and White Mtns., western juniper) are growing on relatively depauperate sites, in environmentally extreme climatic conditions." So we have the concept of trees that have character because they have been aged by adversity. This would include many of the stunted forests growing under harsh environmental conditions. The age of these trees may not be easily apparent hidden by their unusual form, and certainly they are not large for the species, but they do have character.

4) Intact ecosystems: this would a forest that had been minimally impacted by people. In the east there are virtually no forests that are pristine, so the degree of impact would need to be considered with respect to other forests in the region. Thus a forest in a heavily impacted area might be considered under this category even if might fail to make the grade in a different region. Other impacts to be considered are that species such as chestnut have been lost by indirect human impact. People have spread these invasive species which have had serious impacts even if a particular forest has not been cut. In this category I would include what are called old-growth forests and primary forests. Older recovering second growth forest can be considered if the character of the forest is approaching that of an intact forest system from the region.

5) Unusual assemblages: This category would include forests with an unusual assemblage of trees and other plants. Lee Frelich has talked about the Rock Elm forest in Minnesota near the boundary between prairie and forest. Other such forests might include those growing in various types of barrens in which the assemblage is restricted by the geologic conditions. We should also consider those forests such as are growing in a mixed condition like trees in swamp setting or trees in desert setting. These are not what we would normally consider a forest, but they are a vital part of the ecosystem. The old growth post oak systems in the cross- timbers areas of Oklahoma and Texas are a good example of this type of assemblage.

These forests are those that contain a genetic component that may not be well represented in the general forest population, forests that show adaptations to unusual or harsh environments, forests that contain unusual species assemblages or disjunct populations, forests that contain a relatively intact ecosystems, forests that contain populations of rare or endangered species, and old growth forests.  The focus of this category is the internal characteristics of the forest rather than its role as part of a larger system.   It has been some time since this original post and discussion and the concepts should probably be revisited and reassessed at this time.

Large Forested Blocks and Corridors

Large tracts of forests can serve as corridors for the movement of animals and migration over time of plants across a landscape.  Some species of animals require a large contiguous tract of forest to establish breeding populations.  A primary value of these forests may simply be that they are large enough to serve these secondary functions that require a large forest block.

Forests that are Buffers or Component of Other Natural Systems

Forests are not entirely an entity unto themselves.  One example might be a cave system.  The water flow into the system is commonly directly related to the ground cover above.  Removal of the forest above a cave could disrupt the water flow into the system and adversely affect the ecosystem within the cave.  Surface stream systems are also dependant on the ground cover.  The loss of the hemlocks from the hemlock wooly adelgid has a dramatic effect on the streams flowing through these areas.  The shade from the hemlocks kept the water cool, now with the loss of cover these streams are changing from cold water fisheries to warm water fisheries.  There are interactions between forests at the interface between the forest and adjacent ecosystems.  Disruption or removal of the forest may adversely affect the adjacent ecosystem as well.  There are many examples that could fit this value category.


These categories are meant to be used as a tool for evaluating different aspects of how we as a culture find value in forests and trees.  These are not necessarily the only values that could be considered but are the ones that stand out among the possibilities.  Nor are the categories themselves meant to be restrictive and limiting.  Some aspects of forest values may cross the category lines.  The listing is simply a means to help organize the considerations of valuing forests and trees

Edward Frank
Western Pennsylvania


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