The Personal Touch to Conservation

Sometimes the personal touch makes all the difference. Face-to-face interactions, reaching out with information, and inviting landowners to be part of the effort are examples of personal touches that require an investment of time. A recent study by Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources and Environment indicates that time invested in reaching out to landowners about conservation programs and encouraging them to accompany habitat monitoring activities on their land is time well spent.

The study, which was published in PLOS ONE, indicates that private landowners trust conservation agencies more and have better views of program outcomes when they accompany conservation biologists who are monitoring habitat management on their land. The findings suggest that outreach, particularly in-person interactions, can have a significant effect on shaping landowner experiences with conservation programs. At a time when funding for agency outreach is tight, these results are particularly important.

“This study shows the value of investing in face-to-face interactions and relationship building,” explained lead author Seth Lutter, a master’s student in fish and wildlife conservation. “Further, the results show an important and unexpected role that biological monitoring technicians can play in building landowner trust with the agency delivering conservation programs.”

Engaging private landowners in conservation and sustaining that interest is critically important, particularly considering that crucial habitats for migratory birds and other wildlife are found mostly on private lands throughout the Intermountain West. Outreach from conservation professionals helps private landowners learn about voluntary conservation programs, such as those administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and could also help keep landowners involved in long-term conservation.

Federal conservation programs funded through the Farm Bill, such as Working Lands for Wildlife and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, provide private landowners with financial and technical assistance to conduct conservation on their lands. These programs have played a critical role in engaging private landowners in voluntary conservation practices in sagebrush habitat and working wetlands – two important focal areas of the Intermountain West Joint Venture.

Lutter worked with Ashley Dayer, assistant professor of human dimensions in Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, on this project. The goal of the research was to understand how effective these habitat programs are from a social perspective. The researchers were interested in evaluating how outreach could influence landowners’ program experiences and possibly their future management for wildlife on their land.

Dayer and Lutter hope their results will help agencies like NRCS focus their efforts on effective outreach strategies, including training technicians and field staff on landowner interactions, encouraging site visits, and providing feedback to landowners on management outcomes.

Dayer added, “Private landowners are critical to the health of our nation’s wildlife populations. Ensuring that conservation programs are designed and delivered in a way that works for landowners and fosters their continued interest in conservation is essential.”