Forests and Human Health June-18-2013

Wellbeing from Forests

– Research program provides information to develop better forest-based services for people, communities and enterprises

Tuija Sievänen, M.Sc. project leader and Liisa Tyrväinen, Professor, programme director
The Finnish Forest Research Institute

Nature-based recreation is an essential part of life for Finnish people. The majority of recreational visits are made to forests. Four out of five people living in Southern Finland have a residence in an urban environment, and urban forests and other natural areas in cities are of great importance for recreation.  However, Finnish people also have many opportunities to get close to nature in the countryside, since there is an increasing amount of recreation homes, almost 490 000 at the moment, and every second Finn has regular access to a recreation home. Another aspect of nature based-recreation and tourism is a need to develop new means of livelihoods in rural and peripheral areas, and nature-based tourism is seen as offering opportunities for businesses. National parks are now hotspots of nature tourism, because the number of visits in protected areas is over 2 million per year today and growing all the time. These visits generate economic and social benefits in surrounding communities.

The research needs for nature-based recreation and tourism, rural development and livelihoods arise from these aspects of urban and rural development, and from an increasing need for providing health and wellbeing benefits from nature to urban and rural populations. There is a need to reserve enough parks and other green areas in urban areas, because land use for housing and other development has been intensifying and less nature areas are provided for residents within urban population centers. This has produced conflicts within land-use planning. There is also a need to preserve landscape quality in rural areas, because conflicts related to forest management regimes and nature-based recreation and tourism are common, especially in the surroundings of tourist resorts and concentrated recreation housing.

The objectives of the Research Program ‘Wellbeing from Forests’ are firstly the integration of different forest uses to develop tools for integrating social information into forest management and planning (social value mapping, virtual landscape simulators, multi-criteria decision making tools, etc.), secondly, the further science-based development of participatory approaches and tools in planning and decision-making, thirdly the creation of models for multiple-use forest management and improving processes/practices for producing recreation and landscape values, and finally, to stress the benefits and economic value of forest recreation and tourism, which are topics of baseline research in the field. Nature-based recreation and tourism inventories and statistics are a basic information source for foresight and trends, and for the monitoring of the sustainable recreational use of forest resources, for rural development and tourism, and for wellbeing benefits for the population.

The studies of the research program have been divided into four topic groups. First, the economics includes research on regional/local economic impacts of forest based tourism, development of methods for valuing economic benefits of recreation and tourism, and marketing non-wood forest benefits, in particular developing scenic and landscape value trade in private forests. The second major area of research has been studies analyzing the demand for and trends in nature-based recreation and tourism, assessment of recreation demand, and segmentation of recreationists. It also covers the human-nature relationship, environmental perceptions and preferences of visitors in protected and recreational areas. One aspect has been to look at environmental changes such as climate change and their impacts on recreation and tourism. Furthermore the ecological impacts of forest recreation and tourism on nature are studied, particularly in regions of major tourism concentration. The relationship of forest based tourism with local cultures and traditional forest uses is one the topics related to rural development. Studies of cultural and social values of forests are focused especially on the benefits of nature to human health and wellbeing.

The research program includes seven main projects financed to a large extent by the institute, and many smaller projects paid from project funding outside the institute. The titles of projects describe the focus and purpose rather well: The meaning of tourism and recreation in rural development and landscape; Nature-based recreation monitoring and assessment;  Environmental and recreation services of forests: economic impacts, valuation, and business opportunities; Geographical information systems and multi-objective decision support methods for multiple-use forestry; Socio-ecological tools for the planning of tourist destinations in Kainuu; Valuing and marketing forest externalities; Green infrastructures for health in future living environments; Land-use planning for sustainable tourism destinations; Impacts of forest management practices on landscape and recreational values; Integrating ecological and social information in urban planning; Nature and forest based tourism as a business opportunity; and New Ways to Value and Market Forest Externalities. The research program includes 20 projects in the period 2008-2013 and 24-28 researchers, about 20 man years per year, of which only a few are working full time and many are working part time for the program. The annual budget is 1.75 million euros, of which 35% of the project money comes from outside the Finnish Forest Research Institute.

The research program has wide international cooperation and collaboration, both as EU funded projects and with several networking projects. Many of the program’s researches are active members in IUFRO, and senior researcher Tuija Sievänen is the coordinator of Division 6, which is also the home of Research Group 6.05 ‘Forest and Human Health’.  This Research Group will later take over the duties of the Task Force to carry the theme of Forest and Human Health into the future.   

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