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Research Cites the "Phenomenological" Experience of Owning Land

From the November 2004 issue of The Forestry Source

New research from the University of Tennessee suggests foresters must take the initiative to integrate their expertise with the ways landowners relate to their land.
Chris Schnepf, University of Idaho, www.forestryimages.org

Despite the stacks of research about how foresters can best meet the needs of landowners, there is little consensus among researchers as to whether foresters have a clear understanding of the landowners' motivations, and values, especially those "nonparticipant" or "uninvolved" landowners who appear to engage in no management activities at all.

Yet a recent study by social scientists at the University of Tennessee that explores the "phenomenological" reasons people own land may help foresters and other natural resources professionals reach more nonparticipant landowners and encourage them to become more involved in the management of their property.

"The majority of the research devoted to the values and interests of private forest landowners has been quantitative and focused on landowners already familiar with or engaged in management activities," said Miriam Davis, a graduate research assistant working with professor Mark Fly in the university's Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries. "This research focuses on nonparticipant private forest landowners (NP PFLs) to inform forestry professionals about what they find significant about their land."

To gain this understanding, Davis interviewed 7 NP PFLs using a "phenomenological method of inquiry" — a philosophical and methodological approach for studying experience that relies on a subject's first-person descriptions of his or her experiences.

Following the phenomenological assumption that what we are aware of reveals what is meaningful to us, Davis asked each of the interviewees one central question: "Can you think of a time when you were on your land that stands out to you, and can you describe it?" (She asked follow-up questions as needed to get subjects to elaborate on their responses.) Then, after all her responses were collected, she analyzed them in a search for patterns and themes.

With this method of inquiry, Davis was able to ensure that the researcher's thoughts about land ownership remained separate from the thoughts of those being interviewed.

"The majority of the previous qualitative studies were focused around the concept of management," she said. "In this study we stuck with the interviewees' words — what they said — and didn't introduce anything. If the subject didn't use the word "management," then it didn't get mentioned."

When her analysis was complete, Davis said six major themes emerged that describe the way NP PFLs experience their forestland: "connection, continuity, power and awe, peacefulness and frustration, value, and freedom and constraint/control." Davis also found that, even though the forestry community deems NP PFLs as "uninvolved" or "nonparticipatory," that doesn't necessarily mean they are not active on their land.

"Nonparticipant private forest landowners are not necessarily inactive on their land," she said. "It just may be that the activities they perform — digging ditches, removing dead trees, etc. — do not fit traditional notions of what constitutes forest management."

In addition, Davis learned that some NP PFLs might not respond to calls to manage their lands because the language used by the forestry community may not resonate with them.

"Some forestry practitioners have reported frustrating experiences with landowners who didn't have any objectives for their land," she said. "However, some landowners do not perceive landownership as a goal-oriented activity."

Ultimately, said Davis, awareness of how NP PFLs experience their land can help foresters better meet their needs.

"By listening to nonparticipant forest landowners and understanding how they experience their land, foresters will be better able to translate their expertise in a way landowners will find meaningful," she said.

Thus, if foresters are to be more successful in reaching out to NP PFLs, they may need to change the way they interact with them.

"The burden lies on forestry professionals to make forest management seem relevant, important, and compatible to nonparticipatory landowners," she said.

Conducted in participation with the University of Missouri and Purdue University, this study is part of a larger research effort funded by USDA CREES that examines the sustainability of private forests in the Central Hardwood Region of the United States.

For more information, contact Miriam L.E. Davis, graduate research assistant, Department of Forestry, Wildlife, & Fisheries, University of Tennessee, 274 Ellington Hall, Knoxville, TN 37996-4563; (865) 974-1963; miriams@utk.edu.

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