Early Successional Forest Management on Private Lands as a Coupled Human and Natural System
Facilitating voluntary conservation on private lands is a crucial element of policies that seek to mitigate forest habitat loss and fragmentation around the world. Previous research emphasizes the role of social factors (e.g., landowner characteristics, economics) in forest management, but environmental outcomes of past management can also affect landowner decisions. Our objective was to evaluate how positive outcomes for wildlife and habitat might reinforce or amplify landowner efforts to manage forest habitats. We applied the lens of coupled human and natural systems to investigate private lands management for early successional forests, which are declining along with associated wildlife in rural areas of the eastern U.S. Efforts to restore early successional forest in this region involve active forest management to create patches of successional forest in native, mature mixed hardwood stands. By integrating field-based monitoring of wildlife with surveys of landowner perceptions, we examined how landowners observed, interpreted, and responded to property-scale ecological outcomes of forest management. We recorded presence of Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) and American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) and estimated bird species richness in spring 2015 and/or 2016 on private properties located in the Appalachians (Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania) and Upper Great Lakes (Minnesota, Wisconsin). These properties were enrolled in early successional forest management programs administered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Bird surveys were paired with landowner responses to a telephone survey conducted from January to May 2017 (n=102). Most (71.6–81.6%) landowners’ perceptions of avian presence on their properties matched monitoring results. These perceptions were informed by personal observations and by outreach from agency partners and field technicians. Landowners who already completed their conservation program contracts (n= 85) continued managing early successional forests. Continued management for early successional habitat was positively associated with perceived benefits to birds, forest health, and scenery. Our findings give insight into how private landowners respond to environmental effects of forest management. We conclude that positive environmental outcomes of these conservation programs are related to continued early successional forest conservation by private landowners.