Social capital and private forests: the role of personal networks in environmental decision-making

Most forestland in the U.S. is in private ownership, consequently a variety of ecosystem services available to society are dependent on sustainable land management decisions by individual landowners. Landowner decision-making is a complex process and shaped by individual landowner attributes and social context. For example, forest owners often rely on family and friends, as well as forestry “experts,” for information and technical assistance. Theory and analysis of social relationships, i.e. social networks, emphasize the importance of network structure to the flow of beneficial resources among actors. However, social network structure surrounding private forest management has received little attention. We evaluate the influence of social networks on sustainable private forest management and provision of ecosystem services. We interviewed 44 landowners in Wisconsin, and evaluated their personal, i.e. egocentric, networks and use of voluntary Best Management Practices (BMPs) for water quality during a recent timber harvest. Concurrently, we interviewed 28 forestry professionals to determine the impact of network structure on their capacity to meet landowners’ needs. Preliminary results suggest an increase in landowner ties to experts, specifically a public forester, increases BMP implementation, but may also increase landowners’ perceived difficulty with the management process. Furthermore, forestry professionals’ social networks appear to be influenced by a public policy tool—i.e. tax incentive program—which in turn affects professionals’ capacity to impact landowner behavior. We discuss the methodological challenges but important contribution of understanding social networks surrounding land management decisions. We also stress the need for improved understanding of the impact of public policy on social networks, individual decisions, and ecological outcomes.

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