Image: Mt. Hood National Forest
Rick Bowmer  /  AP
In this file photo taken June 25, 2004, Christopher Mock, 24, of Los Angeles hikes the Salmon River Trail in the Mount Hood National Forest, outside Zig Zag, Ore.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/22/2011 9:44:19 AM ET 2011-04-22T13:44:19

The United Nations has designated 2011 the International Year of Forests, but you don’t have to travel overseas — or even across state lines — to celebrate the event. From neighborhood woodlands to America’s national forests, the woods are where it’s at this spring.

“Trees and forests touch people’s lives every day,” said Jay Farrell, executive director of the National Association of State Foresters. “Whether it’s federal, state, private or even just urban trees, the nation couldn’t do without forests. [They’re] critical infrastructure that everyone appreciates even if they don’t understand all the benefits.”

Resources and recreation
Not surprisingly, the International Year of Forests designation is more about responsible management than outdoor recreation. The organization estimates that the world’s forests cover 31 percent of the planet’s land area, serve as home to 300 million people and help maintain the livelihoods of 1.6 billion.

But resources and recreation are not mutually exclusive; in fact, in the U.S., they’re inextricably linked under the multiple-use mandate that both defines the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and fosters so much contention over its operations. “To provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run” was how Gifford Pinchot, the agency’s first chief, put it — apparently leaving the specifics for others to figure out.

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“The national parks were basically established for preservation,” said Bill Possiel, president of the National Forest Foundation. “National forests are used by a lot of people for a lot of different activities. That often leaves people confused about what they’re for.”

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Hiking, camping and fishing? Check. Mountain biking, ATV-riding and hunting, which are typically restricted or prohibited in national parks? Check. Add in commercial activities — such as logging, grazing, oil and gas extraction — and it’s not surprising that many people don’t have a clear idea of the concept.

Or, in some cases, that they’re even entering a national forest, since most have neither entry fees nor the sort of official portals that national parks have. “The national forest system is much more diffuse than the park system,” said Possiel. “People don’t have that association in their minds that, oh, now I’m going into the Bitterroot or Gifford Pinchot National Forest.”

But go they do. In 2009, 173 million people visited the 155 national forests (and 20 national grasslands) managed by the USFS. According to the agency, another 300 million drove the highways and county roads that traverse the forests, but didn’t stay, stopping only to take a picture or read an interpretive sign. By comparison, America’s 58 national parks saw 62 million visitors that year.

Story: Spring's a fine time for a trip to the forest

Strengthening the connection
The challenge — and, for that matter, the premise of the International Year of Forests — is to foster a stronger connection between people and wooded places. “A lot of times people think of forests as separate from themselves,” said Erin Uloth, spokesperson for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. “But you don’t have to leave civilization to walk in the woods.”

Need help determining where to go? Several online tools can help:

  • Last week, USFS rolled out an interactive recreation opportunity map, allowing users to input their location, find out what forests are within the driving radius of their choosing and explore the options.
  • The agency is also working in conjunction with the National Association of State Foresters to maintain an online calendar of International Year of Forests-related events.
  • The third annual GO-Day, or National Get Outdoors Day, will take place June 11, part of ongoing efforts to combat inactivity and obesity, especially among underserved and urban children. Activities will vary, but at press time, 77 locations, ranging from city parks to national forests, planned to sponsor events.

The latter, it should be noted, is not pegged specifically to forests, yet it speaks to two underlying themes inherent in the International Year of Forests designation — the sheer diversity of wooded places and the importance of raising their awareness among children.

On the diversity front, Farrell of National Association of State Foresters points out that the 193 million acres that constitute USFS holdings account for only 26 percent of the nation’s 750 million acres of forested land. The rest includes state and local forests, private land (often open to public use) and urban trees.

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“There are a lot of subtle but compelling values to these tree and forests,” said Farrell, ranging from purifying the air and filtering drinking water to moderating local climates and lowering energy bills.

Forests for the future
At the same time, forest advocates maintain that raising children’s awareness of forests creates an ongoing cycle that benefits both. “Twenty-five years ago, 68 percent of Americans lived in urban areas; today, it’s 80 percent,” said Alex Comfort, executive director of the Cradle of Forestry Interpretive Association. “People don’t live on the land anymore, so it’s increasingly important to explain why forests matter.”

Consider the Cradle of Forestry itself, a historic site located in the Pisgah National Forest, outside Brevard, N.C. Built on the site of the nation’s first school of forestry, it seeks to put the entire multiple-use mandate in perspective via exhibits and hiking trails dedicated to conservation, recreation and resource management.

“We live in an age where kids are basically disconnected from nature,” said Comfort. “We’ve got to make sure they visit forests — that they hike, camp, learn about trees — so that in 20 years, they’ll have the political will as voters to make sure we continue to protect these places.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail .

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Photos: America's lesser-known national parks

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  1. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado

    In this case, the name does not say it all. Sure, Great Sand Dunes features 30 square miles of flowing sand — Star Dune, the highest, is 750 feet — but within its 150,000 acres, you’ll also find forested trails, alpine lakes and the 13,000-foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The biggest “crowds” come in late spring to swim in Medano Creek, a short-lived snowmelt stream that flows across the sand. Come summer and fall, those with a taste for adventure (and a high-clearance 4WD vehicle) can enjoy high-country hikes and fall foliage via the primitive Medano Pass Road. (Stephen Saks / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

    With famous neighbors including Bryce, Zion and Arches national parks, it’s not surprising that some visitors to southern Utah completely miss Capitol Reef. That’s too bad because within its 400 square miles stand the white reef-like domes that give the park its name, the monoliths of Cathedral Valley and the 100-mile-long geological wrinkle known as Waterpocket Fold. The park is also home to the largest fruit orchard (2,600 trees) in the National Park system, so after a day in the outdoors, head to the Gifford Historic Farmhouse in the Fruita Historic District for fresh-baked pies of peach, pear, cherry, apple and apricot. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

    Mt. Rainier may be more imposing, but if you want to get a sense of the explosive energy beneath your feet, Lassen’s the place. (It also gets one-third as many visitors.) From the main park road, you can view the results of the 1915 eruption in the aptly named Devastated Area, experience ongoing hydrothermal activity amid the bubbling mud pots of Bumpass Hell or make the 2,000-foot climb to the summit for the big-picture view. For a more remote experience, head to the northeast corner of the park, where the 700-foot-high Cinder Cone rises above a moonscape of lava beds and painted dunes. (Witold Skrypczak / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

    Talk about a water park: With just a few short roads that barely pierce its borders, this park in northern Minnesota is a boater’s paradise of bays, islands and passages. Those without their own watercraft can rent canoes to paddle to remote islands and campsites, visit historic sites via a pair of large tour boats or recall the days of the 17th-century voyageurs by joining a 26-foot North Canoe voyage. This year, the park is celebrating its 35th anniversary with a variety of special events, including several nighttime Starwatch Cruises on Rainy Lake on board the Voyageur tour boat. (QT Luong / terragalleria.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska

    Less than 2,000 visitors last year, but almost 500,000 caribou each spring and fall. In other words, the only crowds you’ll experience at Kobuk will likely have antlers and four legs apiece. In fact, this roadless expanse, just north of the Arctic Circle, is so remote that the U.S. Geologic Survey still hasn’t named some of its river drainages. But for those who are prepared for a true wilderness experience, rafting the Kobuk River, hiking the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes or climbing among the Baird and Waring ranges that ring the park can be the adventure of a lifetime. (Tom Walker / AccentAlaska.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Big Bend National Park, Texas

    The “Big,” of course, refers to the sweeping arc the Rio Grande makes along this park’s southern border, but it also applies to the park’s approach to diversity. At 800,000 acres, Big Bend is home to more species of birds (450), butterflies (180) and cacti (60) than any unit in the National Park system. It’d take years to see it all, but for a quick trip, hike the high-country trails of the Chisos Basin, float the Rio Grande between the sheer walls of Santa Elena Canyon and bone up on local history along the new Dorgan-Sublett Trail near Castolon. (Witold Skrypczak / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Channel Islands National Park, California

    The five islands of this park — Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Rosa and solitary Santa Barbara — are just a boat ride or scenic flight from the sprawl of Southern California, yet feel worlds away. In fact, while 350,000 people visited the park’s visitor centers on the mainland last year, only one quarter of them actually made it to the islands themselves. Add in 125,000 acres of protected waters and you’ve got a park that’s part American Galapagos (145 species are found here and nowhere else) and part playground for hikers, divers, boaters and whale watchers. (Stephen Saks / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

    With its cliff dwellings and stone villages, this park in southwest Colorado features some of the best-preserved remnants of the Anasazi people, who lived here from A.D. 600 to A.D. 1300. Unfortunately, many visitors zip in and out, driving the Mesa Top Loop Road or visiting well-trod ruins like Balcony House and Cliff Palace. This summer, however, the park is offering three new ranger-guided tours, including a two-hour, three-mile hike to Mug House; a six-mile, six-hour tour of the Wetherill Mesa area, and an eight-hour, eight-mile hike to several remote dwellings hidden in the recesses of Navajo and Wickiup canyons. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Biscayne National Park, Florida

    Although Biscayne lies on the doorstep of Miami, it’s actually part of the Florida Keys, a 172,000-acre expanse of crystalline water dotted with sea-grass shallows, patches of coral and 30 keys and islets. In summer, when winds are calm and the bugs are bad, stay on the water with a guided snorkel trip to the natural aquaria around Shark Reef or Bache Shoal; when fall winds pick up (dispelling the mosquitoes), take a three-hour tour to Boca Chita Key where you can climb the 65-foot ornamental lighthouse for panoramic views of the park, Key Biscayne and downtown Miami. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska

    No roads, no visitor facilities and no designated trails — if it’s solitude you seek, this 13,000-square-mile park above the Arctic Circle has your number. (Total number of visitors last year: 9,975.) Some visitors arrive by bush plane; others hike in via Anaktuvuk Pass, but all would be advised to plan ahead, either by using a guide service or being appropriately self-sufficient and wilderness-savvy. The rewards? Endless days under the midnight sun in summer, caribou migrations in spring and fall and panoramas of wild rivers, glacier-carved valleys and the craggy peaks of the Brooks Range year-round. (Lee Foster / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Great Basin, Nevada

    Given Great Basin’s location — just off U.S. 50, aka The Loneliest Road in America — it’s hardly surprising that the park accounted for a measly .03 percent of visits (85,000) to the National Park System. Most visitors come to tour the limestone wonderland of Lehman Caves or hike amid the gnarled, 4,000-year-old bristlecone pines on Wheeler Peak. It’s also popular (relatively speaking) with stargazers who come to the park because it boasts some of the darkest night skies in the Lower 48. Consider joining them August 6–8, when the park will hold its first-ever Great Basin National Park Astronomy Festival. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

    Seventy miles west of Key West and surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas saw just 52,000 visitors last year — probably because you have to take a ferry, seaplane or private boat to get there. Once on site, visitors can tour the hulking Civil War–era Fort Jefferson, stroll the beach of Garden Key (most of the other islands are closed to the public) and snorkel amid conchs, corals and kaleidoscopic fish. (Park personnel are monitoring the local waters for oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill, but are currently reporting no evidence of contamination.) (Eddie Brady / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

    The largest park in the National Park system spans 13.2 million acres, features nine of the 16 highest peaks in the country and boasts the continent’s greatest assemblage of glaciers, yet received less than 60,000 people last year. Crowds? Not a problem. Most visitors drive the 60-mile McCarthy Road to visit the rustic town of the same name, tour the Kennecott Mill site or hike up to the toe of Root Glacier. If that sounds too busy, opt instead for the lesser-traveled Nabesna Road, which offers equally stunning scenery and more chances to see wildlife. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

    Rocky Mountain National Park got 2.8 million visitors last year. Black Canyon of the Gunnison? Less than 175,000. Cut steep and deep by the thundering Gunny, the canyon’s near-vertical walls rise as high as 2,700 feet above the water and provide a vivid (and vertiginous) view of 2 billion years of geology. Most visitors stick to the more-developed, easier-accessed South Rim, so consider the more primitive North Rim for equally impressive views with even fewer people. “There’s only a quarter of a mile between them,” says Chief of Interpretation Sandy Snell-Dobert, “but it’s so much quieter.” (Jim Wark / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

    Let’s face it, without Teddy Roosevelt, the U.S. would probably have far less protected space than it does, so a visit to his one-time homestead is more than appropriate. (Besides, it gets half as many visitors as the better-known Badlands.) Most visitors hit the South Unit, snapping pictures of T. Roo’s cabin and the Painted Canyon, while others venture to the North Unit to see prairie dogs and river views. Only a handful make it to the remote Elkhorn Ranch Unit, which Chief of Interpretation Eileen Andes says features “the best view of the Little Missouri and maybe the best view in North Dakota.” (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

    Closer to Ontario than Michigan, this island park in Lake Superior is only accessible by boat or seaplane, which probably explains why it saw only 15,000 visitors last year. For day trippers, easy trails around Windigo and the lodging and tour services at Rock Harbor offer scenic views and glimpses of island history; for canoers, kayakers and backpackers, the bays, interior lakes and backcountry trails are as wild as they come. Ferries and water taxis can transport you to remote docks scattered along the 45-mile-long island; after that, you’re on your own. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

    Heading to Carlsbad Caverns? If so, consider adding a visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which sits just an hour away, sees less than half as many visitors and offers some of the Southwest’s most surprising topography. Check out the unexpectedly lush vegetation in McKittrick Canyon, the 265-million-year-old marine fossils along the Permian Reef Trail and the backcountry trails off the park’s remote Dog Canyon entrance. Prefer some company? This summer, the park is offering its first Hike with a Ranger program, which will offer full-day backcountry hikes with a ranger on the last Sunday of the month. (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. National Park of American Samoa, American Samoa

    They don’t come much more remote — or more scenic — than this little beauty, which is located 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii, spread across four islands and blessed with tropical rainforests, pristine beaches and gin-clear waters teeming with fish. Start your visit with a scenic drive to Vatia on the main island of Tutuila, then hop a flight to Ofu or Olosega for beachcombing and snorkeling. More intrepid visitors should also visit Ta’u, the fourth island, which is considered the birthplace of the Polynesian people. “Access is difficult,” says Park Ranger Sarah Bone, “but the reward will pay for itself several times over.” (NPS.gov) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Stephen Saks / Lonely Planet Images
    Above: Slideshow (18) America’s lesser-known national parks
  2. Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images
    Slideshow (28) America's national parks

Explainer: It's a fine time for a trip to the forest

  • Image:
    Courtesy Celebrate Forests
    The United Nations has declared 2011 the International Year of Forests.

    Throughout 2011, which the United Nations has declared the International Year of Forests, programs around the world are being offered with the goal of raising awareness about the care and feeding of forests and to woo more visitors into the woods.

    Story: Head for the woods during International Year of Forests

    Here at home, the U.S. Forest Service cares for plenty trees, but the agency also oversees a wide variety of special places, including six national monuments, 19 national recreation areas, 11 national scenic areas, 22 national historic landmarks and a half dozen national scenic and historic trails. 

    Throw in a volcano, a planetarium, bison herds and a tallgrass prairie, and you can see how  taking a walk in the woods might take on a whole new meaning.

    Here are some fun facts about U.S. forests to help you plan a visit.

  • Tonto National Forest

    Image: Chiricahua leopard frogs
    Jim Rorabaugh  /  USFWS
    Arizona's Tonto National Forest is home to 10,000 Chiricahua leopard frogs.

    Arizona’s nearly 3 million-acre Tonto National Forest offers deserts dotted with saguaro cacti, mountains covered in pine forests and Theodore Roosevelt Lake, a reservoir that forms the largest lake in Arizona. The nation’s fifth largest forest, Tonto is also home to 10,000 Chiricahua leopard frogs, 20 other threatened or endangered species and the Cholla Recreation Site, the country’s largest all-solar powered campground. “It's not just the toilets that are solar here. The showers, sinks and toilets are solar-powered as well,” said Larry Chambers of the U.S. Forest Service.

  • Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area

    Image: Wranglers Campground
    U.S. Forest Service
    Wranglers Campground is at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.

    Stretching from western Kentucky to central Tennessee, the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area began in the 1930s as a wildlife refuge and, with the creation of Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, became a Tennessee Valley Authority power generation site in the 1950s. The area became a Forest Service site in 1999.

    Unusual features at the national recreation area include a 400-site “Wranglers Campground” with stables, a working homestead farm dating to the 1850s, the Forest Service’s only planetarium, a wild elk herd and two bison enclosures. There are also 200 cemeteries dating back to the communities that existed between the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers before the creation of the two lakes. Wherever you go, watch your step: Although snake bites are rare, among the many species of animals found in the area's forests are four types of venomous snakes: copperhead, pygmy rattlesnake, timber rattlesnake and cottonmouth.

  • Inyo National Forest

    Image: Inyo National Forest
    U.S. Forest Service
    Among the bristlecone pines in the Inyo National Forest is one that may be the earth's oldest living organism.

    With two ski resorts and more than 2 million acres, the Inyo National Forest, in California’s eastern Sierra Nevada, is home to Mount Whitney, Mono Lake, Devils Postpile National Monument and Mammoth Lakes Basin. Of special interest are the two groves of bristlecone pines in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. In one grove, visitors can pay their respects to the Patriarch Tree, the world’s largest bristlecone pine. However, for its own protection, the exact location of the bristlecone pine dubbed Methuselah remains a closely held secret. Tests have shown that Methuselah is at least 5,000 years old and may be the earth’s oldest living organism.

  • Mount St. Helens

    Image: Mount St. Helens
    U.S. Forest Service
    The Johnston Ridge Interpretive Center offers a sweeping view of what's left of Mount St. Helens.

    Located in southwest Washington state and encompassing more than 1.38 million acres, the Gifford Pinchot National Forestis now best known as the home of the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. It was established in 1982, two years after a major eruption collapsed the north face of the symmetrical mountain once known as “America’s Mount Fuji.” Hiking trails, an interpretive center, a volcano cam and a variety of other activities offer opportunities to view the recovering landscape. During the summer, visitors can also rent lanterns and take a guided walk through the lava tube known as Ape Cave.

  • Sequoia National Forest

    Image: giant Sequoias
    U.S. Forest Service
    In Giant Sequoia National Monument, the Trail of 100 Giants meanders through a grove with 125 giant sequoias greater than 10 feet in diameter.

    Taking its name from the 33 groves of giant sequoia trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum) that grow within its borders, California’s Sequoia National Forestis home to 78 miles of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail and the Giant Sequoia National Monument. Visitors can get up close to the world’s largest trees in six groves within the park; three in the northern portion and three in the park’s southern area. The Boole Tree, recognized as one of the largest trees in the world, lives in the northern grove. In the southern section, the Trail of 100 Hundred Giants is an easy-to-maneuver, half-mile, self-guided trail.

  • Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

    Image: Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
    U.S. Forest Service
    The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois is being transformed into the country's first national tallgrass prairie.

    The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois is about 40 miles southwest of Chicago and sits on the former site of the Joliet Arsenal, a former munitions manufacturing site that left behind contaminants the U.S. Army has spent years cleaning up. Progress is being made: As one newest parts of the National Forest System, Midewin is being transformed into the country’s first national tallgrass prairie. Still somewhat of a “prairie in progress,” Midewin offers wildlife, geology, cemetery and ammunition plant tours.

  • Chugach and Tongass national forests

    Up north, Alaska is home to the nation’s two largest national forests: the Chugach in south-central Alaska, and the Tongass, on the Inside Passage. The world’s largest temperate rainforest is in the 16.8 million acre Tongass. The Chugach encompasses Prince William Sound and 20 tidewater glaciers and lays claim to being the country’s most northerly and westerly national forest. Hiking, wildlife viewing (think bears), fishing and skiing are always popular, if sometimes extreme, activities available in the forests’ 22 million combined acres, but even armchair outdoors-types can collect the four, free commemorative Alaska IYOF posters.

  • Land of 10,000 Lakes

    Image: fire tower
    Minnesota Historical Society
    Visitors to Minnesota's Forest History Center can climb a 100-foot fire tower built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

    A great place to learn about the forests in the Land of 10,000 Lakes is at the Minnesota Historical Society's Forest History Centerin Grand Rapids, Minn. There, the ways of the woods are told with trails, an interactive logging camp with interpretive guides who know the facts and the tall tales, a multimedia theater, “Goods from the Woods” ranging toothpicks to hockey sticks, a 100-foot fire tower and other exhibits about the natural and cultural history of the forest. Several “Be a Lumberjack” days each summer offer kids the chance to saw wood, count beans, wash linens, bake cookies and stamp logs for "pay" (wooden nickels.)

  • Image: child looking at pond
    Celebrate Forests
    National Walk in the Woods Day is May 21.

    Ready now for that walk in the woods? A good day to set out would be May 21. That’s National Walk in the Woods Day, a day the American Forest Foundation and other organizations are urging everyone to at least place one foot in a forest. “It’s about getting out and appreciating the trees and forests at your back door,” said Sarah McCreary of the National Association of State Foresters.

    For more events and resources for the International Year of Forest, see Celebrate Forests.

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