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Creating a Landowner Pathway for Forest Health

“Our initial focus on increasing conservation behaviors among landowners conjured self-reflection and exposed a humbling realization.” -Steve Swenson

Healthy forests deliver many benefits – ecological, social, economic – far beyond their tree-lined edges. From habitat for countless plants and animals to purifying drinking water to supplying timber and creating jobs, healthy forests are a valuable asset that require management and care. These facts are rarely debated, but the realities of management and care are more complex than one might think.

According to the National Woodland Owners Survey (NWOS), individuals and families own the largest portion of U.S. forested land, nearly 38% or 290 million acres. While federal agencies and corporate entities own the second and third most acreage, the sheer number of owners pales in comparison to the 10.4 million families, a majority of which own less than 25 acres. Coordinating efforts across varied and multiple ownerships for landscape-scale results requires a deep understanding of landowners and defined pathways that make land care achievable and rewarding.

An Opportunity to Engage Wisconsin Landowners

In Wisconsin, there are over 17 million acres of forested land, of which, over half is owned by private, non-commercial individuals – some 183,000 people. Collectively, of their nine million acres, over five million – owned by 133,000 landowners, do not have a management plan. These numbers imply that seventy percent of landowners haven’t meaningfully engaged a natural resource professional. Without engaging expertise or following a long-term care plan, fate decides the future health of the woods. The ubiquity of invasive species alone represents almost certain risk that plans and action mitigate. So, the question is apparent, if healthy forests have benefits for everyone, how can we ensure privately owned woods are cared for, too?

The lack of landowner engagement certainly is not for lack of professionals or experts. Wisconsin is blessed with many dozens of private consulting foresters statewide, and each county has one or more public foresters offering free services to landowners, including property visits and plan–writing. So, is landowner apathy to blame? Hardly. Over eighty percent of survey respondents have values, beliefs, and intentions that, if acted upon, would tangibly advance the conservation of natural resources. How does this disparity between landowner engagement and potential exist? The reason might surprise you. It surprised us.

A Behavior Change Model Employed 

In the past, naivety, enthusiasm, and modest budgets sustained our fantasy that raising landowner awareness led to the adoption of new land care behaviors. For the most part, it doesn’t. This is especially true for high-involvement decisions like invasive species control or wildlife habitat improvements. Those types of decisions and actions are more similar in complexity to adopting an exercise routine than making a fast food purchase. High-involvement decisions are those in which people consider lots of information, think about the decision over some period of time, and become emotionally invested. Adopting an exercise routine requires one to determine what routine is best suited to achieve set goals as well as a commitment to act consistently in order to see the results. Whereas a fast food purchase requires little input for decision-making and offers near-instant gratification. Many land care practices align as high-involvement decisions, like adopting the exercise routine, that require a series of definable steps that reveal the complexities behind human behavior change.

Psychologists Prochaska and DiClemente combined several behavior change theories for their appropriately named Transtheoretical Model. The steps of their model are: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and confirmation. To illustrate the steps as applied to another high-involvement decision, a car purchase would look something like: not thinking about buying a car; considering and evaluating cars; gathering the necessary pieces for action like a loan or financing; purchasing the car; and finally, being committed to that car model or brand over time. These steps have been extensively applied to all manner of social good campaigns aimed at reducing harmful behaviors like smoking, drugs, and sun exposure as well as increasing beneficial behaviors like exercise, medical screenings, and healthy diets.

Our effort to increase land care practices among private woodland owners focused on six steps that mirror the behavior change model: awareness, learn more, take a first step, make a plan, complete a small action, and complete a big action (Figure 1).

Most importantly, the authors make two critical observations. One, the steps are distinct because a person’current position can be determined with a few questions. Two, certain strategies work better at some steps than others. For example, they found increased behavior change by focusing attention on benefits during initial steps and addressing costs during later steps.  

That was it, the ah-ha moment. We needed to understand the nuances of behavior change in private landowners at different stages so we could provide the right messages, resources, and assistance at the right time. Inundating landowners with cost-benefits of complex programs at the early stages of decision-making might create an awareness for programs, but it wasn’t going to move many landowners to action because they simply weren’t ready – yet.

It seems easy to misconstrue someone’s inaction as thoughtful rejection, when in fact, it’s possible they were simply unaware, or even more likely, unprepared to commit to a decision at that time. Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law (MFL), a tax abatement program in exchange for sustainable forest management, is arguably the most well-known program for private woodland owners in Wisconsin. Shockingly, over forty-five percent of woodland owners in Wisconsin answered not at all familiar with forest tax related programs as surveyed through the NWOS. If we include those who answered slightly (we assume they are not involved) the totals approach sixty-percent of all woodland owners, representing four million acres of woodlands. In fairness to MFL’s success, other states envy Wisconsin’s program with its 40,000 enrollees that own 3.3 million acres. Yet, when seventy percent of eligible landowners are not enrolled in MFL and sixty percent report slightly or not at all familiar, it appears even our most recognizable woodland owner program lacks basic awareness. Dauntingly, MFL is but one of many highly desirable actions we could hope for among woodland owners. Could we, then, connect with landowners by appealing to their values and then raise their awareness and inspire them to learn more (Figure 1)?

The six steps (i.e., awareness, learn more, take a first step, etc.) form the basis of the model, required for any person to adopt a new action, be it exercise or forestry goals. Months and years might separate the steps, but the order and necessity has been well-documented. Respecting these fixed steps encourages the conservation community to be intentional with what we put in front of private landowners and cooperative as a professional community because no single group is adequately addressing all six steps.

The six steps (i.e., awareness, learn more, take a first step, etc.) form the basis of the model, required for any person to adopt a new action, be it exercise or forestry goals. Months and years might separate the steps, but the order and necessity has been well-documented. Respecting these fixed steps encourages the conservation community to be intentional with what we put in front of private landowners and cooperative as a professional community because no single group is adequately addressing all six steps.

My Wisconsin Woods Aligning Resources 

Landowner organizations and agencies – locally, statewide, and nationally – vie for landowner attention and action. There are two aspects to this business-as-usual model that betray an understanding of behavior change for high-involvement decisions: 1) groups are constantly competing for awareness, diluting an ability to scale up or advance behavior change strategies; 2) groups building awareness and excitement to learn more with no clear pathway to necessary next steps for landowners will predictably fall short of landowner action. The irony (and hope!) is, often each group offers landowners products or services unique to the marketplace. In other words, not only is there no reason to compete for awareness, but rather there is incentive to align the respective products and services along the landowner pathway toward action.

My Wisconsin Woods is a partnership effort dedicated to serving woodland owners and providing them the knowledge, products, and services to care for their land. The project maintains a website with considerable and dynamic content to support woodland owners. The Aldo Leopold Foundation and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources provide leadership among the many partners. Playing to each organization’s strengths, the Aldo Leopold Foundation focuses on landowner outreach and education through the their website, e-newsletter, and social media (steps awareness and learn more) and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources focuses on landowner property visits – arguably the perfect take a first step. In the National Woodland Owner Survey, landowners identified walking the land with a professional as a desired method to learn, and they look to state employees to receive information. Our effort to break the business-as-usual model has been to align marketing of partners’ services under My Wisconsin Woods to seamlessly connect the steps along the pathway from awareness to learn more to take a first step for thousands of woodland owners across the state.

Just as cars are sold with a sales associate’s guidance, land care decisions like planting trees, controlling invasive species, or improving wildlife habitat benefit from professional involvement. This personal interaction when they take a first step appears to be critical in the cultivation of one’s ideas and confidence to make a plan (Figure 1). To be sure, plans can be a mental exercise or formally written down and documented. For example, it seems a safe bet that of all the people actively saving for retirement, many have a plan, however, few actually have it written down. Not to lose the forest for the trees, what matters most is identifying actions that are most valuable to the landowner and land. Actions that have a landowner’s emotional investment are more likely to be implemented.

As alluded to earlier, when individuals move into later steps, they focus on costs, time and money. Who is going to do the work? How much is it going to cost? The role during implementation is to reduce these barriers to action (Figure 1). Here again, the natural resources community is readied with governmental financial assistance, contractor and master logger certification lists, equipment and supply vendors, landowner testimonials, experienced landowner contacts and referrals, and other resources.

My Wisconsin Woods, Learning More, Acting 

In the nearly ten years of My Wisconsin Woods, we have demonstrated that more landowners complete actions when they request a property visit versus just receive information. It corroborated the assumptions that awareness doesn’t equate to action, and it underscored the need to focus attention on a viable pathway to action. MyWisconsinWoods.org meets woodland owners where they are at, providing content appropriate for brand new and experienced woodland owners. If in the process of learning more, they are ready to engage a natural resource professional, a property visit is just a click away. This year My Wisconsin Woods was advertised for eight weeks across half of the state through TV, radio, newspaper, digital, and direct mail. Excitingly, over 1,700 requests for property visits across 90,000 acres of woods were tallied from landowners that have not previously walked their land with a natural resource professional.

If ultimately the expectation is to know and guide a landowner (like a doctor knows their patient or a mechanic knows one’s auto), My Wisconsin Woods has a ways to go. But, as this work expands in earnest, just knowing a change in our behavior can help more landowners realize their conservation ethic is truly motivational, and a step in the right direction.


This article appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of the Outlook Magazine. Become a member and get the next issue delivered to your mailbox!

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