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When Family Dynamics Define the Landscape: a Mixed Method Approach to Understanding the Decisions Shaping Massachusetts Forests

Principal Investigator/Project Leader: 
Department of Project: 
Environmental Conservation Dept.
Project Description: 

Sponsoring Unit: Massachusetts Agricultural Experiment Station

The goal of this research is to gain better insight into the decision making process of Massachusetts forest-owning families in regards to the future of their land so that educators may tailor outreach programs and material to help these families make informed decisions about it. The results will be shared with policy makers interested in supporting family decisions about the future of their land.

The state of Massachusetts, with 62% of its land covered by forest, is the eighth most forested state in the nation. Massachusetts is also the third most densely populated state in the country. There are few places on earth where so many people live among so many trees. More than 70% of the forests in Massachusetts are family forests, owned by over 46,000 families and individuals. The average size of forested properties across the state is 17.9 acres. Looking only at parcels ten acres or larger, the average size is 42.5 acres (Kittredge 2008). The development value and property tax assessments of land in Massachusetts far exceeds the value landowners can earn through forest management (D'Amato 2010), making it a challenge for families to keep their land undeveloped. In addition, 71% of Massachusetts forests (or 1.2 million acres!) are owned by people 55 years old or older (Butler 2008). This suggests that in the coming years, these woodland owners will be making decisions about the future of their land. The cumulative effect of the independent decisions that these landowners make about their land will determine the future of our landscapes and the public benefits they continue to provide (or not to provide).

Landscapes dominated by small, private non-industrial forest ownership provide an array of important ecosystem services and public benefits, including clean water, wood products, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and rural tourism. Processes of land conversion, fragmentation, and parcelization, resulting from land sales and development, affect conservation efforts because they reduce the number of forested acres, increase the number of owners, and add uncertainty to the future of landscapes and the benefits they provide.

On a day-to-day basis, landowners spend most days simply enjoying their land for its amenity values and do very little planning for its future (Butler 2008). However, landowners are periodically faced with decisions to be made about their land, including future ownership and use of it, which they are often forced to make with limited information (Kittredge 2004). These family decisions are shaping our forested landscapes and the public benefits they provide. In order to better understand the timing and drivers of these decisions, this proposed research seeks to understand these processes of decision. Researchers will use a combination of methods; these will include interviewing six families who have done estate planning and use of the knowledge gained to develop a mail survey that will be sent out to landowners across Massachusetts. The survey will provide a broader view of how landowners make decisions about the future of their land and the role family relationships play in these decisions.