Over the last five years, New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF) has learned a lot about how to reach private landowners. Collectively, 215,000 families with 10 or more acres of forest land own 11.7 million acres of New England. Their decisions will shape the future of New England’s forests, and they face myriad decisions of consequence: whether to manage their trees for wildlife habitat or for carbon storage, whether to hire a forester to guide timber harvests, whether to sub-divide their land, and ultimately whether to work with NEFF, a local land trust, or a public agency to conserve their forest lands.
Since 2015, NEFF has been working to do something rare; we’ve tried a series of concerted, carefully planned and targeted social marketing campaigns to improve outreach to landowners, focusing on how the conservation community can best provide information to this critical audience. In late 2019, NEFF published a 60-page report detailing the lessons and best practices we’ve learned.
“From Engagement to Action: Supporting Woodland Owners in Decisions About Their Land,” is available for download in NEFF’s online publications library. It provides recommendations to conservation and forestry practitioners, land trusts, and municipal agencies for scaling up landowner outreach. The recommendations should be particularly useful to the network of 44 Regional Conservation Partnerships (RCPs) that span New England. The report traces the on-the-ground experience of a focused, long-term, multi-partner effort to track and test landowner outreach tactics in a high-priority landscape over time, including tools for messaging about forestry and climate change adaptation.
Most woodland owners love their land, and many worry about what will happen to their land in the future. Land trusts can help through proactive and strategic landowner outreach, focused particularly on places critical to maintaining the ecological function of our forests. Through successful outreach, the conservation community can engage with and support landowners so they are aware of their options for conservation and Exemplary Forestry whenever they are ready to make decisions.
To pilot strategies for these kinds of outreach, NEFF worked with American Forest Foundation (AFF) and the MassConn Sustainable Forest Partnership (MassConn), a coalition of land trusts serving 38 towns on the Massachusetts-Connecticut border. Forest corridors still remain in the MassConn region, but development is encroaching on all sides from Worcester, Springfield, Providence and Hartford. The partners worked together to win grants, plan, implement and road test outreach and social marketing strategies to large-acreage landowners over a five-year period.
The MassConn Woods Landowner Outreach Initiative included a series of direct mail campaigns offering landowners information and free visits with land protection specialists and foresters with coordinated follow-up to responders. These periodic campaigns were paired with seasonal peer learning opportunities, such as woods walks hosted by landowners, estate planning forums, and workshops about funding programs.
Since 2016, NEFF and MassConn partners have won grants to incorporate climate change themes into outreach efforts by training foresters to provide tailored advice to woodland owners about how their parcel of land might be particularly affected. To date, the partners have completed 102 visits by trained foresters to the owners of more than 7,700 combined acres in the MassConn Woods and are following up to support owners in applying for funding to adopt forest management plans and implement recommendations.
As demonstrated by the graphic at the bottom of this story, the MassConn Woods Landowner Outreach Initiative found patterns of repeated participation by individual landowners as they gradually learned more about the resources and funding programs available to them over the course of the project. Partners found that offering free information can be a useful gateway or stepping stone into the program, before offering a free visit with a forester or land trust representative. Meeting with an expert can be an intimidating step for owners who are less confident in their own knowledge or goals, so “information priming” is an approach to pave the way toward a visit.
A key theme of the report is the value of—and need for investment in—repeated opportunities for landowners to develop their own goals and interests for their land and to engage with other landowners and professionals as they learn about their options for conservation or more active forest management.
The project also improved conservation planning and knowledge. During the project, MassConn received a grant to create a shared computerized map database that updated protected open space maps for the two-state region, adding some conservation easements that had never been tracked in past data layers. There were approximately 174,000 acres of protected open space in the MassConn region when that data was created in early 2016, and across the 38 towns, and more than 5,000 additional acres have been protected since then.
NEFF is using lessons from the MassConn Woods as we work with partners to apply similar tools across New England. We’re also working with foundations and other conservation funders to encourage them to provide resources to land trusts for improved training for outreach practitioners, messaging and evaluation tools for conservation collaboratives, and long-term funding for the outreach staff needed to sustain outreach in high-priority landscapes. Sustained outreach is key to tripling the current pace of protection to achieve Harvard Forest’s Wildlands and Woodlands Vision of conserving 30 million acres of forest by 2060.
Landowners Share Barriers
As part of the MassConn Woods outreach project, AFF and NEFF invited a small group of landowners to participate in a focus group—following a Stafford, CT estate planning forum—about how they viewed the process of planning for the future of their woodlands. The following comments were among those made by owners, who shared some of the barriers and challenges they faced in moving ahead with these decisions.
This feedback informed outreach to inspire owners to take steps to initiate their planning process, and to learn more through online resources such as AFF’s MyLandPlan.org. NEFF’s outreach report also identifies the need for streamlined access to estate planning professionals familiar with land conservation, training for practitioners to implement effective “peer-to-peer” landowner programs and funding sources to sustain these programs over the time-scale of landowner decisions.
Desire to Protect Land from Development
“My goal is to keep the property open land, or at least get an easement … so that it won’t be developed. And I haven’t done very much except worry about that.”
Balance Providing for Family With Protecting Land
Many participants spoke of struggles in how to use their land to provide for their family while still protecting their special, unique land.
“Although I’ve thought about it, I haven’t done anything about it…will I [be able to] satisfy the things that I want to support and still be able to be fair to the kids?”
Misalignment of Kids’ and Parents’ Values
Parents tended to see their land as special, unique and an asset, but kids tended to see more the burden of land ownership (extra work, taxes, time, etc.).
“I think a lot of those intrinsic values… [my kids] somewhat internalize, so they see the farm as being something special. Yet they don’t necessarily want to grab a shovel and a hoe and spend the rest of their life growing potatoes.”
Fear of Making a Mistake
Participants spoke frequently about the amount of information they need to make legacy planning decisions and while many felt motivated to make these decisions, they were afraid of doing something wrong.
“I’ve had a lot of conversations with each of my boys [about the land], but haven’t done anything concrete to date, for fear of making a mistake.”