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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Parks Stewardship Forum

UC Berkeley


Parks Stewardship Forum delivers interdisciplinary information and problem-solving techniques across all topics relevant to the world’s parks, protected areas, cultural sites, and other forms of place-based conservation. The journal represents all areas of inquiry relevant to understanding and management of parks, protected areas, cultural sites, and other forms of place-based conservation, including but not limited to the natural sciences, cultural resources-related disciplines, social sciences, and interdisciplinary perspectives. 

Nature and Health: Emerging Knowledge Informs New Policy Directions

Issue cover
Cover Caption: Time spent in nature is beneficial to human health. A family explores tidepools at Cabrillo National Monument, California. GEDAPIX

The issue's featured theme papers present a variety of perspectives on the connections between nature and human/planetary health.

GUEST EDITOR: Nooshin Razani, MD, MPH

Points of View

A most worthy service—in an era of un-healthy parks, un-healthy people, and a near-death experience for democracy

A "Letter from Woodstock" editorial column on the role of the National Park Service moving forward from the Covid pandemic and the attempt to overturn the 2020 US presidential election.

The joys of nature: A cultural mosaic

A "Coloring Outside the Lines" editorial column on how taking joy in nature is an essential part of good health.

Theme Articles

Nature and health in practice

An introduction to the set of theme articles, "Nature and Health: Emerging Knowledge Informs New Policy Directions."

Justice in access to the outdoors

Nature is an established social determinant of health with clear benefits to physical, mental, and social health, yet it continues to be used as a setting for violence against Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). The right to be physically active outdoors, to play, and to gather in community is essential for health and well-being, and as such, the ongoing incidents of violence outdoors have the potential to widen the health disparities gap. While the movement to bring nature and health together has gained traction, this movement cannot succeed unless violence against communities of color outdoors ends. Health professional organizations who have been vocal about the impact of racism on health need to take measures to ensure safe access for all is prioritized and achieved in the outdoors. We offer a set of recommendations for health professionals and health organizations to enact measures that that ensure our work is better justice-aligned in nature.

Insider community-engaged research for Latinx healing in nature: Reflections on and extensions from Phase 1 of the Promoting Activity and Stress Reduction in the Outdoors (PASITO) project

In Spanish, pasito means “small step,” and in Phase 1 of the PASITO (Promoting Activity and Stress Reduction in the Outdoors) project we took small steps towards reclaiming nature for Latinx communities. The Latinx reclamation of green spaces for healing is a necessary step alleviating the observed unequal burden of chronic and infectious disease. Paradoxically, the Latinx community who could greatly benefit from green spaces has reduced access, as is the case for many poor communities of color. This perspective seeks to reflect on and utilize the lessons learned from PASITO in order to expand the positive impacts of nature for communities of color. Through self-reflection by members of the academic research team and a community leader, as well as preliminary analysis of qualitative data gathered from PASITO participants, we share insights from a community-engaged research project. Our approach validated culturally competent research practices with insider researchers, as well as culturally sensitive biospecimen collection, and revealed steps towards recruitment, retention, and healing for Latinx participants in research projects. These findings come at a pivotal time for park stewards and green space researchers as the need for spaces for healing accelerates for all communities of color, including Latinx, as we face a society plagued by biological and social reckonings. To find true and sustained healing within these communities calls for communities to progress from small steps towards giant strides in the reclamation of natural landscapes for well-being.

Toward a unified model of stress recovery and cognitive restoration in nature

There is abundant evidence for both cognitive and affective improvements stemming from spending time in nature; however, the mechanism underlying these effects are still under debate. Frameworks such as Attention Restoration Theory (ART; Kaplan 1995) and Stress Recovery Theory (SRT; Ulrich et al. 1991) have been helpful in understanding how restoration is achieved. Using the neurovisceral integration model (NIVM; Thayer and Lane 2000, 2002), we suggest that cognitive restoration and stress recovery co-occur and that they are bidirectional manifestations of activity in the vagus nerve, which links the peripheral nervous system (PNS) to the central nervous system (CNS). Future research should examine both PNS and CNS activity simultaneously to provide a better understanding of the changes in the body and brain associated with immersion in nature. This research program will provide the scientific evidence to help inform public policy related to human health, urban design, and environmental protection.

Equitable healthcare requires equitable access to nature

A call to action for equitable access to nature and green spaces as a matter of healthcare.

Beyond COVID-19: Conserving nature to prevent the next pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has unimaginably changed our lives with long-lasting consequences for our society, environment and the global economy. Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, is just one of the many pathogens that have already emerged in humans as a result of interactions with wildlife and is only one of the many to come if we do not reduce our impacts on natural systems. While the immediate priority is to tackle the COVID-19 public health emergency, our parallel and long-lasting response must focus on addressing the root causes of pandemics. Human and animal health are inextricably linked with the pathogens they carry and the ecosystems that are shared. The degradation of nature disturbs this delicate balance between microbes, their natural hosts, and environments—driving the emergence of disease.

Nature printing: Merging plants, art, and well-being

A portfolio of the author's nature prints, with thoughts on how the process of creating this art connects her to nature and promotes health.

Growing Upward [music video by Rupa & the April Fishes]

I wrote this song from the perspective of a dandelion seed germinating under asphalt as I consider how our imaginations have been curtailed by colonial systems, where nature and society were separated by false notions that have created ongoing violence towards animals, the water, Indigenous people, and the other entities we share this planet with. I explore in this song my own indigeneity, the part of myself that extends back to a time before systems of supremacy posited that I, as a human, was somehow more worthy than a plant or a microbe. In my work as a physician, mother, healer, artist, I seek to dismantle that delusion, to reimagine life where we are situated back in a web of healthy relations, the web that has been damaged and continues to be damaged by the mindset that brought colonialism and all its harmful structures. We are not separate from nature. We are her. [A YouTube video of the song is linked from the article.]

One hundred years of health in US national parks

In 2021, the US Public Health Service and the US National Park Service (NPS) celebrate a century-long partnership (1921–2021) to protect and promote the health of park visitors, neighboring communities, and the nation. Few know that the impetus and justification for the establishment of NPS are rooted in public health. This paper chronicles the park service’s 100-year commitment to and experience in addressing health protection and promotion through the years and demonstrates how public health has been intrinsic to the purpose and values of the National Park Service from its inception up to the present day. The paper posits a call to action to our nation’s land managers, planners, scientists, political leaders and health officials to build on this tradition to help address some of the most complex and vexing public health issues of the present day, such as the public health implications of a changing climate, and health inequities impacting our nation, and to help parks realize their full potential in contributing to a healthier, happier, more sustainable world.

Parks: A vital community condition

Parks and green spaces serve as integral components of the fabric that comprises social determinants of health. These “green drug stores” are upstream factors that provide physical, mental and social, and environment-related health and well-being benefits. Yet, 100 million people in the United States lack access to a park within a 10-minute walk of their homes. These natural or semi-natural outdoor public spaces hold significant underexplored potential for the health of communities. Decisionmakers across the spectrum of community members, practitioners, researchers, and policymakers have the opportunity to leverage parks as a proactive tool for healthy, resilient, and more equitable places. This article aims to highlight the role of parks and green space in generating community health. It includes a brief review of benefits offered as described in the health literature, challenges experienced in elevating parks for health, potential innovative solutions, and three short case studies and lessons learned about parks and community well-being. The overarching conclusions emphasize (a) access, quality, and inclusion as core pillars in advancing the work, (b) placing community voice at the center, and (c) furthering cross-sectoral partnerships in the design of public spaces.

Writing a new playbook: A regional coalition for healthy lands, people and communities

TOGETHER Bay Area, a regional coalition of public agencies, nonprofits, and Indigenous tribes working for climate resilience and social equity in the San Francisco Bay Area, increased the region’s capacity to adapt to the COVID-19 crisis in the spring of 2020.  This had a direct impact on the public’s ability to go outdoors—and will change how we respond to crises in the future. We convened forums for information sharing, coordinated a public education campaign, and advocated for funding and policies, all of which positioned our members to more effectively and efficiently respond to the crisis. As this article will describe, we were able to increase coordination, increase innovation, and support policy change.

The vital role of rangers in conservation

Global biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate. The majority of the protected and conserved areas (PCAs) that are the core elements of protecting the world’s biodiversity, and the ecosystem services it provides, are not under sound management. Adequate numbers of competent, well-resourced, and well-led rangers are the foundation for effective management of these PCAs. However, the majority of rangers are unrecognized, under-appreciated, and under-resourced. Rangers operate under poor and dangerous working environments with inadequate employment conditions. The International Ranger Federation (IRF), as a global representative body of rangers, has been working to connect and recognize rangers through several initiatives, including the triennial World Ranger Congress (WRC). The Chitwan Declaration of the 9th WRC, held in Nepal in 2019, strongly encourages those who manage PCAs that employ rangers to identify shortcomings, and thereafter introduce measures to improve outcomes. The Universal Ranger Support Alliance (URSA) is an alliance of seven conservation organizations to support IRF with the implementation of the Chitwan Declaration. URSA has developed a global five-year action plan to accomplish lasting transformation to create a professional, responsible, and accountable ranger workforce that is properly valued, led, and supported. URSA itself and the action plan provide a global platform for individual conservation professionals, rangers, conservation organizations, and ranger employers to work together in supporting rangers—the first responders responsible for maintaining the health of the planet.

Shaping a global strategy for building capacity and performance of rangers in and around protected areas

The ranger profession is rallying behind the need for change, driven by external and internal pressures to strengthen the occupation and its profile. We undertook a review of ranger capacity aimed at improving the capacity, performance, and alignment of the ranger occupation globally. With an international working group, we undertook an objective and structured problem-solving process to examine current issues and links between key variables. We identified several preferred outcomes for rangers and priority targets for change and proposed a simple model for building capacity and improving performance. The model highlights three key elements of capacity: competency (skills, knowledge, and practice), critical mass (right numbers in the right places) and strong supporting systems (organizational structure, systems, policies, resources, and management). Recommendations emerging from this study include a three-stage action plan with short-, medium- and long-term measures and suggest a collective leadership approach across the entire profession. Short-term actions include harmonizing the names, ranks, and roles of rangers, developing a global code of conduct and ethics, and systematic alignment of available training and support with demand. Medium-term actions emphasize regional knowledge hubs and communities of practice while enhancing exchange of knowledge and skills. They also encourage more recruitment of locals (especially women) to improve connections with communities and engage tacit knowledge of the area, cultural knowledge, and skills for managing natural resources. Longer-term actions focus on developing a centralized ranger support body to facilitate change, advocate for the profession, and promote the essential contributions of rangers to conservation of natural and cultural heritage.

Building healthy relationships between rangers and communities in and around protected areas

Positive ranger–community relationships are vitally important to effective conservation in and around protected areas. In this paper we take a practical approach to identifying and examining the key issues and practices that affect the relationship, both where it is strained and where it is working well, and provide recommendations for action. The issues and the solutions are multi-layered, with embedded complexity based on history, cultural identity, and rights to access natural resources. Solutions require a deep understanding of and respect for the needs and aspirations of the community and its capacity to partner in conservation efforts. Similarly, rangers require effective support and training that enables alternative interactions with communities and greater professionalism. In general, the improvements will require building trustworthy relationships grounded in understanding and supported by strong collaborative management systems and governance. Essentially this means strengthening the social capital of conservation. Our problem analysis revealed that the internal and external factors affecting relationships can usefully be divided into six themes: law, policy, and safeguarding human rights; organizational systems and strategies; options for ranger–community interactions on-site; model systems and the role of communities in conservation and stewardship; and the role of both external supporters and disruptors. Our recommendations for action target conservation bodies at four levels—international, regional, national, and local. They are further clustered around four types of action grouped into: critical responses and crisis planning; establishing general guiding principles, systems, and management and governance; promoting the best models and practices; and strengthening of professional knowledge networks and support.

What will it take to professionalize rangers?

There have been widespread calls for rangers to be professionalized, culminating in the recommendation for “full professionalization” at the 2019 World Ranger Congress, led by the International Ranger Federation. There have, however, been no consistent definitions of what this process should involve for rangers or what constitutes a professional ranger. We examine here eight widely acknowledged elements of existing professions and review how they apply to the current ranger occupation. These are (1) A recognized sector; (2) Competences and standards measuring professionalism; (3) Certified training and learning; (4) Remuneration, rights, and working conditions; (5) Standards of ethics and conduct; (6) Personal commitment and motivation; (7) Professional organizations and employers; and (8) Professional representative bodies. Overall, while there are examples of progress in all eight aspects of professionalization, there has been no strategic, consistent, and coordinated program for professionalizing the sector. Across much of the world, the occupation is inadequately recognized, poorly resourced and supported, and falling far short of being a respected and appreciated profession. We offer a range of recommendations for building a global professional framework that can be adapted to and adopted at the national and organizational levels to develop a ranger sector that is ready to meet the growing coverage of protected and conserved areas, the diversification of the ranger workforce, and the increasingly complex demands of the work.

Employment conditions of public sector rangers: A major underaddressed problem

This paper addresses the current state of knowledge around a variety of employment indicators that would fall under the designation of “ranger employment welfare.” Although limited, the information presented here paints a disturbing picture of the current state of ranger employment, one characterized by low levels of benefit and high exposure to danger and risk. Both the processes of the International Labour Organization and the content of the recently agreed-upon Chitwan Declaration are addressed throughout this piece. The concluding section provides a set of recommendations, which are principally directed at two groups: the government agencies that employ most rangers, and those non-governmental organizations that seek to improve ranger employment conditions and effectiveness.

Empowering rangers through technology and innovation

Protected areas are key to biodiversity conservation and ranger-based monitoring, and law enforcement is the cornerstone upon which effective protected areas are built. Frontline practitioners, however, are often asked to protect large swathes of land or sea with limited resources, support, infrastructure, capacity, and/or training. Technology, when applied effectively and appropriately, has the capacity to empower practitioners, revolutionize ranger operations, improve ranger safety, and enhance wildlife protection and conservation outcomes. To do so, technology must be recognized, from the frontlines through to key decisionmakers, as a force multiplier, but only when it is fit for purpose, accessible, cost-effective, and supportive of rangers’ needs. In this paper we detail the general state of conservation technology and innovation within the ranger context and provide a series of detailed recommendations to help the Universal Ranger Support Alliance (URSA) meet the needs of rangers around the world, including: demystifying technology and clarifying what it can and cannot do, connecting the right technology with the right people and places, focusing technology development and investment on substantive improvements and support, broadening ranger familiarization with technology, building technology capacity in rangers, fostering greater community building and creating opportunities around technologies, engaging the technology sector to innovate and design technology to support rangers, and supporting technology as a complement to traditional knowledge and skills, rather than a replacement. These recommendations constitute an ambitious vision which cannot be delivered by URSA in isolation. Rather, we propose URSA leverages existing efforts to ensure rangers are supported around the world.

Where are the women? Towards gender equality in the ranger workforce

The ranger workforce is currently characterized by an extreme gender skew. Exact data—or even reliable estimates—are scarce, but the general understanding is that only 3–11% of the global ranger workforce is female, with considerable local variation (Belecky et al. 2019). Although consideration of the gender context for a workforce often starts with numbers, achieving greater gender balance requires a much more comprehensive understanding of the problems and a wide-net approach to solutions. Bringing women into the ranger workforce is an important human rights and equality goal in itself. Further, there is evidence that women bring skill sets and strengths to the ranger workforce that are different from those of men. Bringing gender equality into the workforce can improve conservation, relationships with communities, park management, and wildlife management. The Chitwan Declaration (World Ranger Congress 2019) commits to broad gender-related goals: gender-equal opportunities in hiring, pay, and promotion in the ranger workforce, as well as appropriate measures to provide safety and support for female rangers. This paper, based in part on interviews with men and women in the current ranger workforce, analyzes the state of the gender imbalance in the ranger workforce, provides a contextual assessment, and advances recommendations for moving towards these Chitwan goals.

Role of ranger associations in strengthening ranger workforce

The International Ranger Federation (IRF) is a network of regional, national, and sub-national ranger membership-based professional-worker associations. In this paper, we discuss the significant support that ranger associations receive from rangers across the world. A global ranger association model is presented that builds on the existing structure of IRF, and the relationship between three tiers of association is detailed. For the first time, the roles and responsibilities of the three levels of ranger associations are articulated and the benefits to members presented. Ranger associations can be vehicles for the provision of legitimacy and credibility to the ranger profession, the creation and promotion of a shared global vision of the ranger profession, advocating for members’ interests and those of rangers who are not yet members, supply of thought leadership on professional development, and networking, sharing knowledge, and promoting good practices among the world’s rangers. In other words, ranger associations are ideally positioned to facilitate the implementation of the white papers presented in this issue if they can build the required capacity, partnerships, and resources to do so.

Advances in Research and Management (Peer-Reviewed)

Seeing things differently: How are environmental conditions perceived and why does it matter?

Parks and protected areas that provide recreational opportunities for visitors are often faced with a set of unique management challenges. Primarily, this includes balancing the preservation of the ecosystem with recreational use, often involving the mitigation of visitor behaviors. As well, various groups that may interact with these areas often have conflicting priorities for or opinions on management actions. In order to promote sustainable visitor behaviors, increase support for management initiatives, and address some of these conflicting opinions, an understanding of how environmental conditions are perceived among user groups is needed. Therefore, this study sought to illuminate how two groups that differ in their levels of experience and knowledge with respect to a protected area with high levels of visitation perceive the state of its environment. A survey was administered to people identified as “experts” on the Niagara Glen Nature Reserve (Ontario, Canada) as well as to those identified as more casual “visitors” to the reserve. Perceptions of ecological conditions are compared to empirical measurements. For both visitors and experts, the overall perceptions of environmental conditions differed significantly from the ecological data, with visitors generally providing higher ratings of ecosystem conditions, whereas experts generally provided lower ones. Visitors and experts also differed significantly from one another in their perceptions—a meaningful finding for understanding intergroup conflicts as well as the basis for support for management initiatives. The findings highlight the importance of considering perceptions of environmental conditions between groups, and of understanding how perceptions relate to measured ecological data.

To fee or not to fee? Satisfaction, service quality, and support of an entrance fee of a state park system

In the past decade, state government appropriation reductions have forced park agencies to seek other sources of revenue to support park operations. To overcome shrinking budgets, many public park agencies embrace private-sector business models and investigate customer satisfaction, service quality, and user fee structures. The purpose of this study was to obtain public input regarding service quality, general satisfaction, and experience use history of state park visitation. A total of 382 Oklahoma state park users completed an online survey and were sorted into Pro-Fee (n = 200, 52%) and No-Fee (n = 182, 48%) groups for one-way multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) tests. The researchers found a significant difference between the two groups on service quality, but not on overall satisfaction or behavioral intention (e.g., revisit, recommending the park). When comparing Pro-Fee and No-Fee groups, researchers found no statistically significant variance in visitors’ demographics, such as gender, education level, and income, whereas the number of years that had passed since the visitors’ first visit showed a significant difference between the groups. The findings of this study provide valuable insight for discussions related to entrance fees and service fees in state park systems.

Exercise and stress levels associated with a visit to Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (TAPR) is a rural protected natural area in Kansas, United States. This parcel of public land provides visitors from varying areas with opportunities to experience a remaining collective of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem that once spanned large areas of North America. TAPR also provides visitors with opportunities to engage in nature-based experiences while also executing active pursuits. The researchers examined the effects of visiting TAPR on individuals’ stress and activity levels during fall 2016. Electronic surveys and accelerometers were used to quantify individual stress levels and exercise. Participants (n = 239) traveled an average of 138 km to visit TAPR and spent an average of 143.7 minutes at the park, with an average of 68.1 minutes in moderate to vigorous exercise. A large majority of visitors (88.3%) also reported feeling less stressed than usual while at the park. The results suggest visiting natural areas have the potential to reduce stress and promote exercise, both well-known factors contributing to individual well-being. The results of this case study also convey the significance that accessible natural areas can have regarding opportunities of people to spend time in public lands and their reception of the benefits (e.g., mental, emotional, and physical) gained from the natural experience(s).

The Photographer's Frame

One Health for all: The intrinsic connection among people, animals, and our shared planet

This visual essay in "The Photographer's Frame" explores One Health, a "collaborative, multisectoral, and trans-disciplinary approach—working at the local, regional, national, and global levels—with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment."

Verse in Place

Trophic Cascade

A poem in the "Verse in Place" section of Parks Stewardship Forum.