Following a passion, from the bright lights of the stage to the forest

Emily Huff is fascinated by the relationship between people and nature, and how people learn, talk about and make decisions about the environment.

Emily Huff

Emily Huff has always been driven by passion. Her love of music and a dream of Broadway stardom took her to Brandeis University to study music composition. While there, however, she struggled with the seemingly binary nature of life.

She was having to choose very specific music concentrations while realizing a Broadway career was unlikely. She was also discovering other interests. A youthful passion for nature was what eventually defined her career.

She decided on environmental studies and quite literally sought to change the world one recycled bottle at a time.

“I wanted to save the world, as one does, when they are in college,” Huff said. “I went full force. I joined the recycling club. I was the one lecturing others about the importance of turning off their lights. I was in deep.”

Again, however, she was confronted with a binary world – many of the other students wanted to preserve nature by keeping humans as far away from it as possible. Huff, now a professor in the MSU Department of Forestry who studies the human dimensions of forestry, is much more interested in the complicated gray areas.

The most pivotal moment in her studies came when she had a mentor who loved nature just as much as she did, but was also comfortable with people cutting down trees.

“Humans are here to stay,” Huff said. “Pro-environmental doesn’t mean we remove ourselves from resource use at all. So, I wanted to throw myself into figuring out solutions to using the resources.”

She jumped all in again, and discovered she liked messy details. Huff became fascinated by the relationship between people and nature, and how people learn, talk about and make decisions about the environment.

“Human dimensions research is really intended to contribute science that helps build policies that can help avoid conflict in the first place, whether through forest management, water use or even climate change,” Huff said. “Demonstrating the value of forests to the public should be our number one mission whether we are foresters or university researchers.”

Huff’s research has focused on urban and rural forest systems on both public and private forest land. She studies how people’s attitudes, values, preferences and intentions influence their behavior related to natural resources.

“People often have a very abstract relationship to forests,” Huff said, because of certain dimensions of distance, and that distance can be literal, as in physical distance, or more abstract such as a time, or the psychological distance of the social norms within your peer groups or even a person’s overall knowledge and understanding of an issue. “These human dimensions have a huge potential to help us understand decision making. For the people who want to change behavior, the question is how do we shrink the metaphorical relationship people have to all these dimensions? We need to make things less abstract and more concrete.”

In a world with so many stresses on natural resources, changing behavior is all-important. To change that behavior, Huff also studies something she knows she can’t really change – people’s values.

“These issues are so fraught, and seen as so contentious, because often people are trying to change people’s values instead of their attitudes,” she said. “Attitudes update with more information all the time. Values, on the other hand, tend to be set early on and are more immutable. Values are a great way to understand a person. Measuring them and knowing what they are allows you to avoid a lot of pitfalls, whether you are a manager or a policymaker.”

Research also indicates that crafting quality environmental policy is about working with the public just as much as it’s about working directly with policymakers. For Huff, who enjoys the nuances of policy but also loves going out and talking directly with the public, her research is a perfect fit.

“Stakeholder engagement and stakeholder participation are what motivates me to research what data is needed, and what best practices and knowledge are needed, to construct forest management policy that takes into account all these important voices,” she said.

Huff uses self-reported, survey and observational data. With a role in MSU Extension, the university’s outreach and engagement organization, Huff has connections to unique peer groups and stakeholders throughout Michigan.

“My Extension appointment has been really beneficial,” she said. “It has allowed me to connect to the people of Michigan as a neutral observer, but with an added layer of credibility because these groups know MSU Extension in their communities. It allows me to talk to them and not be seen as having an ‘ivory tower’ mentality.”

Her research also lends itself to what she truly loves about her work – teaching and outreach and talking to the public about science and about their personal beliefs about natural resources and the environment.

“Because 82 percent of the U.S. population lives in cities, there is a natural spacial disconnect, and that translates into the kinds of policy preferences we see borne out in legislation. The truth is, though, if you have a connection to a tree or a park in your city you have a connection to forests.”

Huff said she is seeing more value being placed on forests, especially at the corporate level, with corporations like IKEA taking a socially conscious stand.

“When various players are joining the conversation, promoting forests, recognizing that managing and having sustainable forests are important, I think that flows down to people,” she said. “And even if it’s not a giant company like IKEA, something as simple as sharing a beautiful photo of a forest on Instagram can have a huge impact on people’s attitudes.”

Huff has committed her life to research, observation and analysis. One recycled bottle – and one conversation about how people feel about forests – at a time.

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.


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