Ecosystem Transformation Across a Changing Social Landscape: Landowner Perceptions and Responses to Woody Plant Encroachment
Rajala, Kiandra F.
MetadataShow full item record
The conversion of grasslands to woodlands is an ecosystem transformation that threatens grassland biodiversity, the provision of important ecosystem services, and the sustainability of rural livelihoods. A global phenomenon, woody plant encroachment (WPE) has been particularly problematic in the Southern Great Plains of the United States where the actions of private landowners are integral to sustaining grasslands. Increased diversity in landowners’ motivations for owning land have shifted the social landscape of rural areas necessitating a better understanding of landowners’ perspectives about WPE and their subsequent management actions. Towards this purpose, I employed a mail survey to private landowners in the Edwards Plateau of Texas, Central Great Plains of Oklahoma, and Flint Hills of Kansas to investigate landowner perceptions and management responses to WPE. First, I assessed landowners’ acceptance of WPE as a function of how they relate to their land (i.e., sense of place), their beliefs about the positive and negative consequences of woody plants, and their perceived threat of grassland conversion. Then, I examined the drivers of landowners’ goal intentions to manage woody plants and their current use of five adaptive management practices that prevent WPE. My results demonstrate that landowners vary in their sensitivity to WPE based on how they feel connected to their land. This was true even though most landowners had low acceptance thresholds for WPE, believed it led to numerous negative outcomes, and perceived it as increasingly threatening at greater levels of encroachment. Most landowners wanted to control or remove woody plants and were actively engaged in management practices to do so. These findings address uncertainties about landowners’ acceptance of WPE and grassland conservation actions and provide broad implications for how people perceive and respond to ecosystem transformation.
General Audience Abstract
Around the world, grasslands are converting to tree and shrub woodlands at an unprecedented rate. This transformation profoundly reduces habitat available for grassland plants and animals and diminishes many ecosystem services that people and rural communities rely on. This loss of grasslands has been especially far-reaching throughout the Southern Great Plains of the United States. Because most of this region is privately owned, the management actions of landowners play a crucial role in preventing or allowing this conversion to continue. Recent shifts in land ownership motivations expanding beyond traditional agricultural production have created increased uncertainty about how private landowners view and react to this change. To investigate how landowners perceive and respond to this woody plant encroachment (WPE) phenomenon, I conducted a mail survey of landowners in the Edwards Plateau of Texas, the Central Great Plains of Oklahoma, and the Flint Hills of Kansas. Using sense of place, landowners’ beliefs about the potential positive and negative consequences of woody plants, and their perceptions of how threatening grassland conversion is, I assessed the thresholds at which landowners’ do or do not accept WPE. Then, I examined how acceptance of WPE relates to landowners’ management goals and current use of management practices to control or reduce woody plants. I found that most landowners believed that woody plants had many negative consequences and perceived increasing levels of threat at greater levels of encroachment. This related to low levels of acceptance for woody plants in grasslands. However, landowners’ threat perceptions and acceptance of WPE varied based on their sense of place. Finally, most landowners wanted to control or remove woody plants and were actively engaged in management practices to do so. My results provide critical information regarding how current landowners’ view and respond to grassland conversion and offer broad implications for how people perceive and respond to large-scale environmental change.
- Masters Theses