Blog 2.0

A multi-year project involving three separate research institutions, thousands of private landowners, and hundreds of conservation providers across much of the Gulf Coastal Plains & Ozarks (GCPO) geography was completed in 2017. The components of the project include:

  • A high-level mapping of ecosystem service supply in the GCPO region conducted by Lydia Olander and Sara Mason and their team from Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions [download ES Supply Report]
  • A survey of landowners’ reasons for owning lands, concerns, interaction with conservation programs, and valuation of key ecosystem services conducted by Robert Grala and Jason Gordon of Mississippi State University [Report pending]
  • A social network analysis of conservation service providers within the region conducted by Chris Galik of Duke/NC State University [Report pending]

What are ecosystem services and what makes them tricky?

Ecosystem services (ES) are the benefits people obtain from nature, both commodities with recognized monetary value and non-market benefits that are sometimes deemed priceless (such as beauty). As we continue to lose ecosystem services due to environmental fragmentation and degradation, finding new ways to sustain and support such services becomes important. One way to do this is for those who benefit from those services (e.g. downstream users of the water and the general public) to help support and pay those who produce ecosystem services (e.g. good land stewards who prevent runoff into streams and provide habitat for endangered species).

The Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GCPO LCC) commissioned this study because we recognize that in a region where landownership is largely private (~90%), successful natural resource conservation must leverage the collective efforts of private landowners. To do so, conservation practitioners must understand and appreciate what drives landowner management decisions and determine how these values can then be translated into specific results, often in the form of ecosystem goods and services.

Finding the win-win-win

Existing datasets, many of which were identified by using the Environmental Protection Agency’s EnviroAtlas, were used to develop a coarse-scale map of ecosystem service supply and the potential for conservation or restoration. These maps and their underlying datasets, along with the explanatory manuscript from Duke’s Nicholas Institute, are hosted in a new Ecosystem Services - Supply Gallery on the GCPO LCC Conservation Planning Atlas.

The Nicholas Institute assessed nine ecosystem services (see Table 1) in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley or MAV and East/West Gulf Coastal Plains. These maps not only paint a picture of what types of services are abundant or important and where, they also will allow LCC partners to begin identifying sites where conservation action can achieve multiple objectives, i.e. the “win-win-win.”

The Nicholas Institute provided three “Example Use-Cases” illustrating this concept. For example, datasets can show the best watersheds to target for restoration aimed at improving water quality by reducing nonpoint source runoff. Next, by combining additional layers, sites could be ranked on the basis of other “co-benefits” provided in those watersheds (e.g. infiltration capacity for replenishing groundwater, pollinator habitat, and biodiversity).

“What was nice about this study,” Olander said, “is it combines survey work with mapping of services, giving us the ability to understand what people care about and where to appropriately target programs of interest to communities.” She cautioned, however, that the coarse scale of these maps means they are only a starting point. “To better assess a project’s or program’s Return on Investment (ROI), a next step in this process could be to drill down on the landowner surveys for better targeting of conservation, combined with more in-depth ecological analyses in key areas.”

Designing incentive or ES trading programs would require much more in-depth modeling, analyses, and landowner surveys (see, for example, this Nicholas Institute modeling study on Water Quality Trading). There are a variety of programs currently in existence that address the issue of how to balance the mismatch between ES “suppliers” and “beneficiaries.” These include both voluntary and regulatory trading programs, as well as direct payment for service programs -- and many of these focus on water quality.

Going to the source: what do landowners think?    

The purpose of conducting a survey,” said Robert Grala “was to find out the attitudes and needs of landowners. Knowing what they think, what help they need, and what priorities they have will make almost any private land conservation program more effective.”

A survey of approximately 6,000 landowners owning a total of ~424,000 acres within the GCPO region assessed attitudes on a variety of issues in each of the following areas and associated habitat types:
East Gulf Coastal Plain/open pine stands
Mississippi Alluvial Valley/bottomland hardwoods
Ozark Highlands/grasslands

The top reasons cited for owning land were:   

  • long-term investment
  • family tradition
  • legacy to heirs
  • personal recreation
  • healthy soils
  • clean water
  • wildlife habitat
  • appealing visual appearance

The top concern expressed by landowners within the GCPO region -- who rated themselves on average as “extremely concerned” -- was drinking water quality.

Moderate concerns included:     

  • drinking water quantity
  • chemical drift
  • wildfires
  • insect pests
  • invasive species
  • soils erosion
  • loss of forest, farmland, natural areas, wildlife habitat, and pollinators

Landowner values extend beyond income, but some landowners are “cut off”

One striking result of the survey is the revelation that many top landowner values and concerns do not relate specifically to land-based income production. One method used in this study for determining the value of non-market ecosystem services such as aesthetic appeal or wildlife habitat is to determine an average “willingness to accept” price at which a landowner would be willing to forego property income in return for providing another service (for example, delaying harvest of trees to provide wildlife habitat).

“Monetary compensation is one aspect of conservation,” Grala said, “but not necessarily the whole. Many landowners are interested in preserving ecosystem services, so perhaps they need more technical information, help with management plans, or simply awareness that programs exist to assist landowners with these needs.”

In particular, a portion of landowners, roughly 50%, rarely interact with conservation agencies or professional organizations that have access to this kind of information. “They are cut off,” said Grala. “Extension works to reach landowners through workshops, everyone has their established methods, but we may need new media to reach out more effectively.”

Maps showing results from the surveys by zip code will be made available on the CPA in a gallery entitled "Ecosystem Services - Demand."

Talking to landowners and talking to ourselves

In addition to the landowner surveys, a second survey of conservation practitioners in the GCPO region (including local, state, and national NGOs, private sector organizations and consultants, state agencies, federal agencies, and extension service) provided the basis for an analysis of the relationships between conservation organizations and the attributes of the networks they comprise.

This type of network analysis can serve several purposes:

  • Identify potential “bottlenecks” in program implementation
  • Assess gaps in representation and opportunities to enhance a network of practitioners
  • Highlight opportunities to better integrate management efforts across spatial, ecological, and organization scales

The GCPO network analysis found different patterns of interaction as reported by landowners and those reported by practitioner organizations working in the region. Specifically, landowners generally reported interacting more with extension and industry organizations, while conservation practitioners interacted more with state and federal agencies. Survey results also suggest that landowner preferences may not be fully appreciated by conservation practitioner respondents. Christopher Galik, who led the analysis, noted that “conservation practitioners may be overestimating the frequency that landowners work with government agencies, while underestimating the role of private sector, extension, or industry organizations.”

Among conservation practitioners, the analysis suggests a well-connected network among the state and federal organizations critical to development and delivery of conservation programs in the GCPO LCC region. Though a well-connected network may be beneficial for the diffusion of innovative practices, they may be less suited to facilitate coordinated programming. “There is a need to continue efforts to coordinate activities at the regional scale, an important component of practice-driven, ecosystem-level management,” Galik concluded.

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