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Forest Therapy Can Promote Healing and Bring New Park Visitors

By Joan Mooney

Many park visitors enjoy a walk in the woods, sometimes with a nature guide. But, two California state parks are offering a very different experience with guided forest therapy walks. With a forest therapy walk, “there’s a lot more intention to it,” says Amos Clifford, founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. “It’s a practice that has to do with developing sensory awareness, using the senses as a way to intentionally invite in the healing power of the forest.”

Forest therapy originated in Japan, where a practice known as Shinrin Yoku, literally “forest bathing,” was recognized by the Forest Agency (the equivalent of the U.S. Forest Service) in the 1980s. The Japanese Society of Forest Medicine was created by a highly credentialed group of scientists and medical doctors to promote research on forest medicine, including the therapeutic effects of forests on human health. The science behind the practice is based on breathing in phytoncides (wood essential oils), which are antimicrobial volatile organic compounds derived from trees. Forest therapy is now recognized in Japan as a stress management activity.

The practice came to the United States through Clifford, a longtime wilderness guide who had led wilderness trips for troubled youth and was looking for a way to bring the beneficial effects of nature to a wider audience. He started leading forest therapy walks in Sonoma County, California, and founded the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, which trains forest therapy guides from around the world.

Clifford’s organization has offered forest therapy walks in partnership with Sugarloaf Ridge State Park for three years. The park was among those in California closed in 2011 because of state budget cuts. Since 2012, Sugarloaf has been managed by the Sonoma Ecology Center, a private nonprofit organization. The Center publicizes the walks on its events website.

“We talk a little about forest therapy,” says John Roney, manager of the Ecology Center. “It doesn’t take long for people to get the idea.”

Roney appreciates that forest therapy walks “bring health benefits to people.” “We looked at the research that’s been done [in Japan and elsewhere] overseas about the health benefits, and it’s very compelling,” he says.

So compelling, in fact, that Roney plans to meet with the three biggest health providers in the area — Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health and St. Joseph Health — to propose a program whereby doctors would prescribe forest therapy walks to their patients, who could then have the park fee waived. Roney hopes to roll out the program this summer in several California state and county parks.

Read the whole article at: http://www.parksandrecreation.org/2016/June/Forest-Therapy-Can-Promote-Healing-and-Bring-New-Park-Visitors/