Some say location is everything, but when it comes to land conservation and management, it’s a landowner’s involvement and interest in working the land that matter more than residing on the property.

This finding is the result of a recent study led by Michael Sorice, associate professor of conservation social science, and master’s student Kiandra Rajala of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, which was published in Rangeland Ecology and Management.

The research is part of a larger effort funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to understand how private landowners in Texas employ conservation management practices on their land.

According to Rajala, this study is important because “to better understand how people manage their land, we need to better understand how they connect with their land.”

One aspect of this connection, and the focus of the study, was to determine how to define an absentee landowner and whether private landowners who do not live on their land year-round manage it differently than those who do.

“We wanted to provide clarification about what it means to be an absentee landowner,” explained Sorice, a faculty member in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation who also is affiliated with the Global Change Center housed in Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Science Institute. “The terms nonresident, part-time resident, weekend resident, or seasonal landowners have all been used to characterize different forms of absenteeism, and there is a wide range of ways to measure it.”

“As a result,” he continued, “there are inconsistent findings that inhibit a clear understanding of the relationship between absentee landowners and private lands conservation.”

Thus, the Virginia Tech researchers chose to instead focus on involvement with the land as a way to clarify the absentee landowner concept.

To understand the degree to which landowners are actively involved with managing their land, the researchers sent mail surveys to approximately 800 private landowners. The surveys included questions about whether the landowners resided full time on their land and how much time they spent managing their property and employing conservation practices.

A specific line of questioning also included the landowner’s involvement in brush management on their property. According to Rajala, “Woody plants encroaching on grasslands has become a big problem in the southern Great Plains, so in addition to asking how involved landowners are on their property, we selected woody plant reduction as the focus of our study.”

The results revealed that high percentages of both full-time and absentee landowners had noticed woody plant encroachment on their property, and both groups reported engaging in brush management efforts. Ultimately, there was little difference between the level of brush management effort reported by both groups. Instead, the differences appeared between landowners who reported being actively engaged with their land and those who did not.

“Simply knowing whether landowners reside on their land full time or how far they live from their land does not provide insight into brush management or other conservation behavior,” Rajala explained. “Good land management is less a matter of whether you live on your land and more about how involved you are in working on your land.

“There are individuals who live on their land full time who aren’t involved with land management or decision-making at all, and there are others who live 50 miles away and commute to the property to engage with the land on a daily basis,” she said.

Ultimately, the study suggests that to understand issues like woody plant encroachment and other invasive species, natural resource managers should look beyond landowner traits and focus on how they think about their land.

“It’s not the characteristic of living on one’s land that matters,” Rajala concluded. “Instead, it’s the way they think about land ownership that influences if and how they interact with it. That, in turn, influences how they will manage their property.”

This research was funded by a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture's Conservation Effects Assessment Project and supported by the National Science Foundation’s Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems program.

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