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Harvard Forest Symposium Abstract 2008

  • Title: Landowner Decision-making and Information Sources: Connecting Social Networks and Ecological Context
  • Primary Author: Mark Rickenbach (University of Wisconsin -- Madison)
  • Additional Authors: David Kittredge (University of Massachusetts - Amherst )
  • Abstract:

    Introduction. We begin with a simple premise: Social and ecological systems are interconnected in complex ways. Forests are, perhaps, one of the most intriguing examples of this interconnectedness—particularly those in private ownerships. Forested landscapes are essential in maintaining human systems through the provision of multiple ecosystem services that span public (e.g., clean water, nutrient cycling) and private (e.g., fiber, maple syrup, home sites) goods. However, the majority of forestland in the Eastern United States is a mosaic of small landholdings (< 20 ha) where property management is largely uncoordinated. On such landscapes, decentralized, ownership-centric decision-making defines the mix of ecosystem services provided and the landscape patterns present now and in the future. While somewhat effective for less spatially sensitive ecosystem services (e.g., fiber production), this ownership-centric approach is ill suited to spatially sensitive ones (e.g., water quality) and may, in some cases, be detrimental to them (e.g., habitat fragmentation). Improving the ecological and landscape sensitivity of private forest conservation and management is a major challenge facing researchers, practitioners, and policymakers in sustaining forest ecosystems.

    Central to unraveling this challenge is a fundamental understanding of how landowners simultaneously fit within their social and bio-physical landscapes. Despite their importance to broader forest sustainability, our collectively understanding of forest landowners has been primarily concerned with individual landowners and/or individual properties. For example, most research surrounding private forest landowners centers on primarily agent-based theories of behavior or decision-making (e.g., rational actor, theory of planned behavior). This perspective is useful in predicting and effecting behavior at broad scales, but lacks the specificity needed to address local landscape concerns and/or opportunities. Other studies (e.g., Bergmann & Bliss 2004) have begun to unpack the social and ecological connections at landscape scales to provide useful insights and suggestions, but often take case study and/or qualitative approaches and do not adequately separate confounding contextual drivers (e.g., threat of regulation) that make application to other settings with different contexts difficult.

    The purpose of this exploratory study is to formally investigate the social networks of private landowners and the connection of those networks to the bio-physical landscape. Our work will specifically consider the networks of information sources and the specific role played by resource professionals in key land management decisions (i.e., harvest timber from, place conservation easement1 on the land) that can fundamentally alter/preserve landscape patterns. This study has two objectives. (1) Characterize and compare the egocentric networks that inform landowner decision-making related to two land management decisions. (2) Place network actors on the bio-physical landscape to explore interactions between social and ecological landscapes. It should be noted that while several authors posit the importance of social network analysis to coupled human and environmental systems (e.g., Bodin et al 2006), our study is novel in that it combines social and ecological data to landscapes in primarily private ownership.

    Past Work & Theory. Landowners can acquire (directly or indirectly, through publications or other media) information about forests from "experts", "peers", or a combination of both. Experts would include those with professional training (e.g., foresters, ecologists, land trust staff, etc.,) or equivalent experience (e.g., loggers). In many cases, landowners may pay experts to carry out portions of the forest management practice. However, experts are not always directly employed by the landowner, but are instead employed by others to work with them (e.g., foresters employed by public agencies or sawmills, land trust staff). Peers usually do not have equivalent training, but may (or may not) be knowledgeable on aspects salient to the decision. Experts and peers are important sources of information in decision-making and this is true in the private landowner context (see e.g., Sisock 2007; West et al 1988).

    In evaluating experts and peers, past research has shown that decision-makers may consider and weigh several dimensions of the source including expertise, homophily, accessibility, information quality, trust, and cost (e.g., Borgatti & Cross 2003; Rogers 2003; Cross & Sproul 2004; Levin & Cross 2004). With experts, additional concerns may arise from oversight challenges described in agency theory due to asymmetric information and/or misaligned objectives (e.g., Eisenhardt 1989). Recent studies (e.g., Rickenbach et al 2005; Gass et al, In review) indicate that landowners face some agency concerns in dealing with professional foresters. And, some perspectives perceive that landowners "underutilize" experts in decision-making regarding their property (Butler & Leatherberry 2004).

    Further compounding the difficulty of information source assessment is the ecological and bio-physical context. It is unclear how or even whether landowners discern such differences. Sisock (2007) found that landowner peer networks extended well beyond the bounds of a particular landscape and included sources with seemingly little connection to it. As a result, landowners may be required to sift out competing recommendations that may not be applicable to their particular situation. For example, a peer may recommend an alternative that may not be applicable given the forest condition and the landowner's objective. Kurttila and Hanninen (2004) found that landowners often do not recall the specific rationale for forest practices on their land, which may further limit the value of the information they provide as a peer to others. However, in attempting to manage forest landscapes, the ecological and bio-physical context are essential elements in planning and management—particular as they relate to non-commodity outcomes such as habitat continuity, water quality, and protecting biodiversity.

    Research Questions. Based on our objectives and past work, we posit two working research questions and related hypotheses.

    From whom do landowners seek information when making decisions about their forestland (RQ1)? We expect that different types of experts will be involved for the different decisions (i.e., harvest and easement). We also expect the total number of sources will not differ by decisions. We further surmise that peers will be evaluated differently than experts along the dimensions described above (i.e., expertise, homophily, etc.). Moreover, from an agency perspective, we posit that peers may buffer the potential oversight difficulties posed when landowners use expert agents.

    To what extent does a source's connection to the local bio-physical landscape affect the landowner's assessment of the information the source provides (RQ2)? While peer-sources with similar ecological conditions on their land might offer information of higher quality (a hypothesis in itself), we expect that such nuanced perspectives will not factor into landowners' assessments. However, we do believe these sources may have greater impact, by virtue of their potentially higher accessibility and homophily (i.e., they live in same community).

    Study Area. We will work in the region known as the North Quabbin, surrounding the Harvard Forest LTER site. Private and public land conservation and management activities have been a subject of integrated study within the HF LTER site for over 10 years (e.g., Golodetz & Foster 1997, Finley et al 2006, Kittredge et al 2003, Kittredge 2005, McDonald et al 2006, Malizia et al in review). In fact, the ecological study of human land use and its legacy effects on vegetation have been active for decades (e.g., Gould 1960, Hall et al 2002). In addition, this study builds on numerous studies of the region's landowners (e.g., Rickenbach et al 1998, Finley et al 2006). Hence, the HF LTER and the surrounding area provide an unmatched location to further extend our understand of the connection between people and landscapes that are primarily in private landownership.

    Methods. We will conduct structured interviews with private landowners in the study area who recently harvested timber (n=20) or placed a conservation easement on their property (n=20). Participants will be selected at random from cutting notices or deed changes filed at Town Halls. These same records will include the physical location of the properties. Interviews will elicit data on information sources through a series of "name generator" questions being sensitive to the potential pitfalls of this technique (Marsden 2005). For each source, interviewees will quantitatively evaluate the source's expertise, homophily, etc., and basic background information (i.e., peer/expert status, how met, where live/work, etc.). Interviewees will also be asked to provide an overall assessment of the particular decision (e.g., positive/negative outcome, fit with expectations) and basic demographic information. We anticipate that each interviewee will identify from 3-6 sources based on Sisock (2007) and anecdotal experience. Source contact information (and permission to do so) will also be gathered to allow for follow-up interviews with sources to learn basic demographic information. Locational data will be incorporated into a GIS for spatial analysis, while egocentric network data will be analyzed using appropriate egocentric network measures (e.g., Marsden 2002) coupled with interviewee and source characteristics.

    To address RQ1, we will compare relationships of interest (see hypotheses) using parametric or non-parametric statistics as appropriate. For example, we will compare overall egocentric network densities and network structure (i.e., peer versus expert) by decision. We also will compare expertise, homophily, etc., by source status. Spatial analysis (i.e., RQ2) investigates whether underlying ecological patterns improve our understanding of information source measures. Ecological data (e.g., land cover, forest type, harvest and protected lands, etc.) will come from existing secondary data sources. It is important to note that our analysis will go beyond simple "linear distance" models present to include the distribution of ecological characteristics across the landscape. For example, one peer may be geographically closer, but their land may be very ecologically different than another peer living further away. To conduct the spatial analysis, we will collaborate with existing HF LTER researchers and staff.

    One limitation of this study is that data will be collected after the decision and its outcome are known. Landowners may not recall all information sources or their specific contribution. We will minimize this limitation by selecting landowners who recently (< 3-4 months) completed the harvest or easement. Optimally, we would track landowners through the decision-making process and its implementation. However, such work would be very costly with uncertain focus given the lack of previous research. This exploratory study should yield insights to focus future research with a larger sample size.

    Expected Outcomes: While our sample size is too small to draw conclusive findings, this study will provide useful insights, working hypothesis, and preliminary results toward more in-depth research and act as a "proof of concept" for integrating social network and ecological analyses. We anticipate that our findings will be of interest to the broader research and practitioner communities and will result in 1-2 scholarly journal articles and at least one conference presentation. In terms of broader impacts, our findings will directly influence on-going outreach efforts to effect the conservation and management of forests in Massachusetts and Wisconsin. Findings will guide on-going planning and delivery and, as appropriate, new programs that reflect the knowledge gained through this and future research.

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  • Research Category: Conservation and Management