A recently thinned cherrybark oak Wetland Reserve Program forest in northeastern Louisiana. Photo by Michael Blazier.
By Ana Gutierrez Castillo
Almost three decades have passed since the establishment of the first bottomland hardwood plantations through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) and Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) in Louisiana. The WRP and WRE are voluntary programs that assist with technical and financial support to landowners who are interested in conserving land as wetlands or converting agricultural land to bottomland hardwoods. Thanks to these programs, many of Louisiana’s agricultural lands (approximately 300,000 acres) have been converted to bottomland hardwood forest habitat. These forests are home to many forest-dependent wildlife species and provide valuable natural services, such as greenhouse gas and nitrogen mitigation and recreation.
However, as with most forests, sound management is necessary to maintain these species and natural services. As these plantation forests mature, they shade out the understory, decreasing forest health and reducing suitable habitat for wildlife. To improve forest conditions, landowners can adopt forest management practices, such as thinning. Thinning reduces stand and canopy cover density, which allows light to reach the understory. This encourages the growth of a healthier forest stand structure and the production of ground vegetation essential to meet wildlife foraging and nesting needs.
Achieving a large-scale impact by thinning the conservation easements is challenging. It requires the cooperation of hundreds of landowners whose characteristics and ownership objectives are diverse. Understanding the preferences of these landowners is essential for conservation planners to tailor management decisions accordingly. To address this knowledge gap, the LSU AgCenter Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness, with the support of the USDA NRCS, conducted a study to gain insight into conservation easement landowners’ preferences for their forest management.
A mail survey was sent to 660 Louisiana landowners with reforested easements enrolled in the WRP/WRE programs. A total of 289 landowners participated in the study. The participating landowners collectively controlled nearly 117,000, accounting for 35.6% of Louisiana’s total WRP/WRE acreage. The average forest size within the easements was 431.5 acres, ranging from 4 to 4,700 acres. Landowners are predominately male (91.3%), 55 years or older (84.7%), and have received a bachelor’s degree or higher (54.3%). Landowners’ ownership objectives were measured on a 5-point scale ranging from extremely important (5) to not at all important (1). Landowners placed the highest importance to the recreation value their easement provides (60.2%). This objective is followed by family heritage (49.5%), restoring and protecting wildlife habitat (47.4%), long-term investment (30.4%) and providing fee-based recreation (12.5%).
Landowners were presented a hypothetical scenario to manage their forested easement to improve forest health and wildlife habitat quality through conducting NRCS-approved thinning operations at no cost to the state or federal government. These forests will have to be thinned the same way most forest landowners get their forests thinned, by contracting with a wood buyer at a privately negotiated price. About 72% of landowners were willing to thin their forested easement. Of those who prefer not to adopt thinning, 37.5% indicated that thinning activities would interfere with their personal use of the land.
A few factors played a significant role in landowners’ dispositions for managing their forested easement: access to information about the benefits of thinning, ownership characteristics (e.g., length of land ownership) and objectives (e.g., family heritage), participation in recreation activities, and management characteristics (e.g., past thinning intention and assistance from professional foresters). WRP landowners appeared to have a wide range of prices that would motivate them to thin the properties, which is similar to many forest landowners. This is a positive sign that these forests will still be managed to achieve the goals of the WRP/WRE programs.
The willingness of landowners to engage in forest management activities to enhance forest conditions is essential for the success of these restoration efforts. Outcomes from this study provide a first glance of easement landowners’ preferences for the adoption of thinning in their WRP/WRE holdings. These findings serve as a potential tool to efficiently target and prioritize landowners who are willing to engage in management to enhance forest health and wildlife habitat quality. Specifically, findings suggest understanding nontimber thinning benefits and working with a forester helped lower payment requirements. This highlights the role professional foresters and extension play in landowners’ management decisions. The information provided can support conservation planners’ decision-making to match easement landowner preferences with the conservation and restoration objectives of the WRP/WRE programs.
— Ana Castillo is a graduate student working with Jerrod Penn and Michael Blazier of LSU AgCenter.