The Summen Project: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), the world’s tallest tree species, loom above the U.S. West Coast landscape from south of Big Sur, California, through to Southern Oregon. Coastal redwoods are endemic, meaning they exist no place else on Earth, as they grow in optimal soil, topography, and climatological conditions. In particular, they primarily gather the moisture necessary to thrive through fog, which they collect through millions of tiny leaves.

Although scientists do know that redwoods are essential species in Western U.S. coastal ecosystems, much remains unknown about these magnificent trees. One question, for example, is: how do redwoods photosynthesize while enshrouded in fog? Photosynthesis requires water, carbon dioxide, and light. Even when redwoods can collect plenty of water, they remain limited by how much light can penetrate their tall canopies. How such an enormous tree species can photosynthesize and thrive in the dim understory remains a mystery.

To address this, and similar, questions, an interdisciplinary science team is exploring California redwood forests using state-of-the-science sensors and computer simulations. Named The Summen Project, after the Ohlone word for redwood, our team represents the social science branch of the overarching study, which explores fundamental natural and social scientific questions. We focus on how people learn, communicate, and make decisions about redwoods trees, ecosystems, and related practices, in light of shifting coastal fog conditions.

Where We Work

California coastal redwoods thrive as far south as Big Sur, California, and as far north as the Oregon border--and we work wherever this magnificent species grows. To date, we have partnered with regional, state, and national parks including Big Basin State Redwoods Park, Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve, Muir Woods National Monument, and Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. We hope to continue expanding our field sites over the next two years. When we’re in the field, you can find us in the visitor center, on the trail, with a ranger, or even at a campfire talk!

Our Team’s Work: Exploring the Human Response

Humans can, and do, play an important role in considering how changing fog patterns will impact coastal ecosystems. By investigating how, when, what, where, and with whom people learn about coast redwoods, we can more effectively design educational efforts around conserving these magnificent trees. Understanding how changing fog patterns will affect the coastal redwoods is crucial, as is understanding how people react to such changes. As part of the Summen Project’s interdisciplinary focus, we are researching the distinct emotional and educational power of the coastal redwoods ecosystems, including how these trees impact their diverse visitor audience.

In particular, we are exploring the design and implementation of educational and interpretive programs in parks with an emphasis on attitudes toward and knowledge of coastal redwoods and related species. Our research will help broaden and deepen understanding of pathways to inspiring sustainability related practices, with a focus on mitigating climate change. Long-term climate change solutions will only be possible by engaging and empowering the redwoods’ most important advocates: the millions of enthusiastic visitors who visit these unique ecosystems annually.

The Research

Although most Americans believe humans are affecting the Earth’s climate cycle, their level of concern about this issue is relatively low in comparison with other national issues.[1] [2] Some research suggests this low concern may be due to relatively weak beliefs in the local impacts of climate change.[3] Individuals instead believe that climate change will impact other people, who are distant from them, either geographically or psychologically. Research also suggests, however, that this cognitive distance can be reduced by building stronger attachments between people and particular places or species at risk from climate change.[4]These social-ecological connections heighten people’s levels of concern and may motivate them to act in ways that mitigate as well as adapt to the effects of climate change.

One way of establishing attachments to nature is through place-based recreation and education, such as that pursued by millions of yearly visitors to California’s coastal redwood forests. In 2014 alone, more than 2 million people visited coastal redwood park destinations across northern California.

What We Are Doing (and Will Be Doing)

Our team is, concurrently, researching the experiences of California redwood-park visitors as well as the messaging of park rangers, interpretive signage and brochures, and other park elements to inform understanding of a landscape of climate education/interpretation. The ultimate intention is to collaborate with others working in this space, such as local museums, parks, nonprofit groups, and--perhaps most importantly--the interpreters themselves. We do this with the intention of using innovative, research-based, grounded approaches to collaboratively develop strategically approaches that engage visitors in creative, compelling ways around these important topics.

Our work on The Summen Project comprises several phases: baseline research on the current state of visitation and interpretation in redwoods parks; collaborating with a range of partners (e.g., nonprofits focused on redwood conservation; California regional, state, national parks; and informal science and natural history museums; among others) to develop a suite of social science-grounded interpretive and educational initiatives; researching and evaluating the ways in which those initiatives influence visitors sustainability practices in the world. The co-developed and implemented initiatives will address connections among redwoods, shifting fog patterns, with an emphasis on addressing people’s short- and long-term everyday life practices.

Redwoods are impressive trees! Visitors are often struck by their own size in relation to the trees.
PC Rebecca Nelson.

In 2017-2018, the Ardoin group is interviewing park rangers about the rangers’ interpretive practices. We are also observing, interviewing, and surveying park visitors about their knowledge of redwood ecosystems, shifting fog patterns, and climate change impacts. In 2018, the results from these studies, which have produced primarily qualitative data, will inform development of a survey, which will be administered to a broader range of protected-areas visitors.

Our findings will have implications for a diverse group of stakeholders, including environmental and outdoor educators and interpreters, policymakers, researchers, and the public. Achieving a better understanding of how place-based educational and interpretive experiences can affect climate change attitudes and practices will help refine communication strategies, contribute to theoretical debates about approaches to environmental education and interpretation, and support adoption of climate change mitigation policies.