By Nate Chotlos, Alanna Koshollek and Katy Thostenson
The last time you interacted with a landowner in person, over the phone, or by email, did you use the word “forest”? Research suggests that using “woods” or “woodlands” might be a better choice. While the thesaurus may say that “woods” and “forest” are synonyms, to landowners the two terms have different connotations.
When the general public imagines a forest, they picture a large protected area. The word brings to mind national forests, government regulations, and even fairytales, but not their patch of trees. Using the term “woods” typically feels more appropriate, similar to the distinction between “house” and “home”. “Woods” indicates an element of interaction and familiarity. The woods are where people cut firewood or learn to hunt, places they know and love. A natural resource professional sounds more relatable if they say “woods”.
Interviews highlighted other instances when forester and landowner vocabulary does not match. “Stewardship” resonates with more landowners than “sustainable management” or other equivalent terms. All landowners want to be good stewards of their land. On the other hand, sustainability is often a meaningless buzzword that rubs some landowners the wrong way. Additionally, it pays to be careful with words like preservation and conservation. The general public uses them as synonyms and doesn’t understand the technical distinction recognized by those in the natural resource field.
Where you are located geographically also dictates the best language to use. The consequences of asking for soda in a “pop” town usually aren’t severe, but using the right word communicates to a landowner that you are in touch with the community. Listen to what people in your area say and use that as a guide. Small tweaks to vocabulary can improve your communication with landowners and lend more credibility to your suggestions.
Andrejczyk, K., Butler, B.J., Tyrrell, M.L., Langer, J. 2016. Hansel and Gretel walk in the forest, landowners walk in the woods: A qualitative examination of the language used by family forest owners. Journal of Forestry, 114(1): 52-57.