Developing Strategies for Education of Underserved Forest Landowners

Final Report for LS01-129

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2001: $169,875.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Region: Southern
State: Mississippi
Principal Investigator:
Glenn Hughes
Mississippi State University Extension Service
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Project Information


A multi-state, multi-institutional research and education effort promoted sustainable forest management to underserved landowners in the South-Central U.S. This research and extension effort involved 1862 and 1890 land grant institutions, consultant foresters, landowners, state and federal agencies, and others in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Twelve focus group sessions were conducted during 2002 and involved 97 landowners. Focus group information provided the basis for developing the mail questionnaire. Mail questionnaires (n=6,000) were used to gather information about landowner educational needs pertaining to forest management. Sixteen forest landowner workshops were attended by 1,302 landowners that valued the information received at $6.8 million. The project produced a workshop format that can be used as a template for successful educational programs in almost any state.

Project Objectives:

The long-term goal of this project was to enhance the management of farm and forestland owned by underserved landowners in the South-Central U.S. This required more knowledge of underserved landowners, what motivates them, their management experiences, and the marketing techniques they use in selling timber. This knowledge will enable us to develop and implement effective programming techniques designed to meet the needs of this audience. Improving basic marketing skills will lead to enhanced economic viability of forest landowners and an improved quality of life for individuals and families in this region.

This effort used both research and outreach components to accomplish the goal through the following objectives. Research objectives were to:

a) estimate the number and additional socio-demographics of individual forest landowners in various underserved categories (i.e., race, gender, age, education, tenure of ownership, acreage owned, ownership objectives, others);

b) assess landowner attitudes, perceptions, and use of sustainable forestry practices (use of management/marketing assistance, regeneration of harvested areas, and knowledge of Best Management Practices; and

c) determine the most effective means of stimulating the involvement of owners in educational programs, resulting in changed behavior.

The outreach objectives were to:

a) utilize our research results to develop, conduct, and evaluate educational programs (workshops) in the south-central region to address the needs identified by underserved landowners;

b) develop an evaluation methodology to evaluate the short- and long-term effectiveness of these workshops for underserved forest landowners; and

c) utilize research and evaluation results to produce a “model” workshop for use in other regions.


Forestry and forest products are an important economic component for the southern United States. Forest-based employment exceeds 200,000 in the south-central states (Hubbard 1999). These figures are for direct forestry and forest industry employment, and do not include other forestry-related jobs (i.e., equipment suppliers, consultants). Forestland is the major land use in the Southern U.S., and offers both environmental and economic opportunities to landowners. These opportunities are the result of an extensive forestland base, forest ownership dominated by more than 1.5 million nonindustrial private forest (NIPF) landowners, highly productive forests, diverse timber markets, and opportunities for fee hunting, pine straw production, agroforestry, and other alternative land use enterprises (Powell et al. 1994, Hubbard 1999, Jones et al. 2001).

Unfortunately, most NIPF landowners are not realizing the full benefit of their forestland. Landowners with small- to mid-sized tracts of land generally lack forestry knowledge and training, thus making their lands less productive and more often neglected than other ownership categories. This situation is particularly acute among minorities, females, and other landowners not generally served by current federal, state, and local programs. Landowners are frequently unfamiliar with the maze of federal and state agencies and programs available to them, and thus make limited use of these resources. Additionally, landowners are either unaware of, or perceive that they cannot afford to pay for, private consulting services. For the purpose of this project, “underserved forest landowners” are defined as those who have not obtained assistance from forestry professionals or attended forestry-related educational programs that are available to them.

Fortunately, the factors that prevent landowners from realizing the full potential of their forestland are related to a lack of knowledge and consequent passive management strategies more so than inherently unproductive land. Knowledge can be gained and landowners can adopt active management strategies if they so desire. Additionally, knowledge will enable landowners to adopt sustainable forestry practices that will contribute to the economic success of current and future generations. The sustainable forestry practices will also improve environmental quality by maintaining or improving water quality, reducing soil erosion, and enhancing wildlife habitat. This monetary and environmental windfall will have a positive, rippling effect on the communities, and the economies, in which these landowners reside.

Improved marketing and production practices from underserved landowners’ forests will provide additional and often immediate family income, create new employment in all sectors of the economy, and improve the quality of life in rural communities. In addition, the value of conservation practices to our environment is at least as important as the economic benefits. Also, a variety of enterprises, from fee hunting to agroforestry to pine straw management, represent an opportunity for landowners to realize additional income while protecting and enjoying their land.

Gaining an adequate understanding and knowledge about specific groups can be achieved through a research process that incorporates both focus group and questionnaire research. Focus groups have been recognized as a valuable tool for investigating natural resource-related topics (Kingsley et al. 1988, Duda 1992, Bissell and Duda 1993, Bowyer 2000). The increased popularity of focus groups may be due to the usefulness of the data they produce (Betts et al. 1996). The open-ended questions used in a focus group session allows individuals in a group of their peers to disclose their opinions and ideas on a topic more fully and freely than they might normally do when given a structured, written questionnaire. This method of gathering qualitative data using moderated group discussion generally requires 6 to 12 individuals per session from the population of interest (Betts et al. 1996, Minnis et al. 1997). A primary purpose for using focus groups is to develop high-quality, quantitative instruments such as questionnaires (Morgan 1993, Betts et al. 1996). Procedures for using mail questionnaires are well established for collecting this type of data from a population of interest (Dillman 1978, Salant and Dillman 1994). They have been used extensively in the natural resource field to gather information on various forestry-related issues (Absher and Anderson 1984, Shindler et al. 1993, Manning et al. 1996, Egan et al. 2001).

Researchers studying forest landowners have found that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for problems faced by southern forest landowners. The primary reason for owners acquiring and holding forestland varies with, among other things, tract size (Birch 1997). Small landowners tend to own forestland for amenity values (i.e., residence, enjoyment), whereas larger landowners place a greater value on commodity production (e.g., timber). This is best demonstrated by the fact that the most frequently cited reason for owning forestland was "as part of a residence" (28% of respondents), although these landowners held only 8% of the forestland acreage. Conversely, the percentage of landowners citing timber production as the principle reason for ownership was very low (4% of respondents), but these landowners held 35% of the forestland acreage (Birch 1997).

Regardless of tract size or ownership objectives, most landowners can benefit from minor improvements in their management. Evaluations and case studies by Extension Forestry Specialists show that changes in timber markets strategies from passive (timber is sold to someone who makes a “reasonable” offer) to active (timber is marketed by a professional forester) often doubles the income from a timber sale. In addition, such a change protects the land because a good written contract includes provisions on Best Management Practices (BMPs), weather restrictions, and other aspects critical to sustaining long-term productivity.

Developing effective education and outreach efforts requires knowing more about the 1.5 million NIPF landowners in the five south-central states. While Birch (1997) surveyed private forest landowners in the South, little is known about their socio-demographics. These landowners and their lands are extremely diverse, and represent a wide spectrum of social, economic, and environmental conditions. Few landowners have large ownerships, possess considerable forestry expertise, or actively manage their forestland. Many landowners have small acreages of forestland, own land “in common” with other family members, do not realize their forests’ economic potential, and are less likely to implement environmental protection practices.

Projected demands for timber indicate that these small forestland ownerships provide opportunities for monetary benefits and sustainable production (Cubbage 1998). Rural economies, in particular, are dependent upon forest resources in the South (Hubbard 1999). However, information is needed on the perceived needs of underserved landowners and the most effective ways to encourage them to act, thereby realizing this opportunity.


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Materials and methods:

The project consisted of a research and an outreach component. Both focus groups and a mail questionnaire were utilized for the research component. Twelve focus group sessions (three per state) were conducted during 2002 to determine landowner values, attitudes, perceptions, and educational needs related to forestry. This number was appropriate since the goal was aimed at understanding characteristics and perspectives of underserved landowners for the development of a broad-based questionnaire instrument. Conducting 12 sessions in various locations (Appendix A, Table 1) across each state allowed for geographical differences among the population of underserved landowners within the region. Appendix B contains the focus group questions. Focus group recruitment consisted of local cooperators contacting various landowners via telephone and in person and inviting them to attend. The sessions consisted of five to 13 landowners (n=97) and were facilitated by the same moderator. Each session was audio recorded to assist in the transcribing of session discussions. Responses to each focus group session, coupled with professional judgment from the research team, provided content material for the mail questionnaire.

After questionnaire development, approximately 21 landowners from educational workshops across Mississippi were asked to carefully review the questionnaire, complete it, and make suggestions for improvement. After reviewing the pilot tested questionnaires, the instrument was refined. The final questionnaire was four pages and contained 44 questions (Appendix C).

Forest landowner databases for each state were obtained from county/parish tax roll data; however, databases were not accessible for every county/parish in each state. The available databases consisted of all landowners owning 10 or more acres of forestland. Thirty percent of counties/parishes were randomly selected from across each state. This resulted in the selection of 23 counties for Arkansas, 20 parishes in Louisiana, 25 counties in Mississippi, and 29 counties in Tennessee. Landowners were then randomly selected from each county/parish. A total of 6,000 (1,500 per state) landowners were selected and mailed the questionnaire. Multiple mailings were used in the questionnaire implementation (Dillman 1978, Salant and Dillman 1994). A reminder postcard was sent to non-respondents during the week after receipt of the initial mailing. One follow-up mailing of a cover letter and questionnaire instrument was sent to those who had not responded after the third week. A business reply return envelope addressed to Mississippi State University was included in all questionnaire mailings. All data was statistically analyzed using the Statistical Package for Social Scientists (SPSS).

The key outreach component of this study was a series of landowner workshops conducted in participating states. A pilot project consisting of 36 workshops was used to stimulate stakeholder involvement in underserved forest landowner education and was conducted during 1998-2002 in Mississippi (Hubbard et al. 2003). Workshops implemented in participating states were based on this pilot project and included slight refinements resulting from this effort. A total of 16 workshops (four per state) were conducted (Appendix A, Table 2). Each workshop required a diverse local planning committee to effectively plan, promote, and conduct the workshop. Based on our experience, this committee is critical, and members included landowners, local forestry association members, Extension personnel (1862 and 1890 institutions where applicable), state forestry personnel, USDA personnel, pastors, supervisors, and others deemed appropriate. Each workshop was publicized extensively. The landowner databases were again used to publicize the workshops. Landowners owning 10 or more acres of land were sent a letter explaining the workshop and inviting them to attend. Additionally, other methods such as newspaper articles, radio advertisements, and flyers were utilized to publicize the workshops.

An important point about the landowner workshops was that all landowners were invited to attend, not just those deemed underserved. This was because we believed most forest landowners are underserved. That is, they have not recently used the services of the many federal, state, and local efforts designed for their benefit. Also, those deemed to be “served” can also benefit from the information provided, as new materials and techniques are continually being developed.

Each workshop lasted approximately three hours. The format was subject to change given local needs, but the agenda generally consisted of: 1) Welcome/introductions, 2) Landowner Perspective, 3) Ownership Issues, 4) Marketing and Environmental Issues, 5) Economics of Forestry, and 6) a Question and Answer session. A meal, funded through the local planning committee, was usually held at the end of the workshop. This allowed for additional informal contacts between speakers and participants funded through the local planning committee, was usually held at the end of the workshop. This allowed for additional informal contacts between speakers and participants.

The “Landowners Perspective” was a personal account by a local private forest landowner of their experiences in managing their forestland. These accounts frequently included both “positive” and “negative” experiences of the landowner, but the important point was to illustrate that properly managing forestland greatly benefits individuals and families and has a ripple effect on local communities.

Next, an attorney discussed “Ownership Issues.” The primary issues included the importance of: 1) a written will, 2) obtaining clear title to the land, and 3) a written contract when selling or marketing timber. Attorneys frequently used real-life examples to illustrate complex issues facing current and future generations if landowners do not obtain appropriate legal help.

A forester discussed “Marketing and Environmental Issues.” The forester communicated why “marketing” timber is better than just “selling” it to the first interested buyer. The forester also addressed the importance of management in meeting the objectives of landowners and improving monetary returns from this sizable investment. Finally, the forester addressed the importance of “Environmental Issues,” including BMPs in reducing erosion and protecting stream water quality. Where applicable, threatened and endangered species were discussed, along with management modifications required to meet species’ needs.

Another forester then discussed the “Economics of Forestry.” This addressed the basic question, “Can I make money growing trees?” It was pointed out that the South is the primary timber-producing region in the U.S., and produces more forest products than any other country or region in the world (Wear and Greis 2003). Projections call for an increasing share of the market demand to shift to the South, particularly the South-Central U.S. While there is currently a market slump (Baldwin and Harris 2003), the overall supply and demand situation bodes well in the future for NIPF landowners in the South-Central U.S. (Wear and Greis 2003). This situation varied considerably among geographic areas, as pine forests have a different set of constraints and projections than hardwood forests.

The “Question and Answer” session was an opportunity for participants to ask questions of presenters and other foresters at the workshop. This was most often handled by including an index card in the handout materials. Participants were instructed at the beginning of the session to write questions on the card. Cards were then gathered at the end of the workshop and questions answered. Through this process points were clarified and specific concerns addressed.

Each participant received a folder containing handout material. This material consisted of information on a variety of forestry-related topics including sources of assistance, regeneration, taxation, legal issues, BMPs, marketing, and other topics. Local planning committees also provided information more specific to each state or geographic area.

An evaluation was included in the workshop handout materials. Evaluations were collected at the end of the workshop session and results summarized. These summaries provided useful information about the benefits of the workshop, as well as information on how participants learned of the workshop (Appendix D).

Research results and discussion:

Three moderated focus group sessions were held each in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennesseeinvolving 97 landowners (Appendix A, Table 1). Each focus group session was moderated by the same person, audio recorded, and transcribed. Information gathered during focus group sessions was used to develop a refined mail questionnaire.

Six thousand mail questionnaires were sent to randomly selected landowners in randomly selected counties across Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. A total of 1,689 completed questionnaires were returned. After accounting for the undeliverable surveys, deceased landowners, and landowners who did not own forestland, the combined adjusted rate of return was 30.7%. Individually, rate of return for Arkansas was 28.9%, Louisiana’s was 29.9%, Mississippi’s was 29.8%, and Tennessee’s was 33.9%. Our study return rate was comparable, although slightly higher, to those of other studies such as Newsom et al. (2003), with a 25% adjusted rate of return, and Arano et al. (2002), with a 21% return. Appendix C contains landowner responses to all 44 mail questionnaire questions.

Certain key results bear mentioning in this report. Landowners ranged in age from 22 to 94 years with the average age 61.3. Forty-two percent of landowners reported a total household income less than $60,000, while 27% reported total household income between $60,000 and $120,000, and 12% indicated a total household income greater than $120,000. The remaining 19% did not report total income. Seventy-nine percent of respondents were Caucasian, 4% African American, and 10% Native American. Four percent of landowners did not report ethnic background. Females comprised 22% of respondents while males encompassed 75%. Only 3% did not reveal their gender.

For this project, underserved forest landowners were defined as those who have not obtained assistance from forestry professionals or attended forestry-related educational programs that were available to them. On this account, a series of questions were asked to determine the underserved status of landowners. Eighty-nine percent of landowners do not belong to a forestry-related organization. Sixty-two percent of landowners had not previously used a professional forester. Also, 60% of respondents reported they had not previously received information on forestry. Correspondingly, 86% had never attended a forestry-related educational program. This data proves that a majority of landowners are not taking advantage of the numerous programs and activities available to them.

Overall, 79% of the landowners had a somewhat positive to a positive attitude toward forestry. Ninety-one percent of respondents felt owning forestland was a good investment. In addition, 85% believed forest management was a good investment on their land. Seventy-five percent were not familiar with government cost-share programs and 83% were not aware of government tax incentives for forest landowners. Only 18% of landowners had previously used either government cost-share or tax incentives.

Respondents reported owning a total of 739,663 acres. Of this amount, 425,734 (58%) acres was reported as forestland. Eighty-nine percent of landowners reported having a clear title to their property and 59% have a written will. The majority (85%) felt they have an obligation to manage their forestland responsibility. Only 10% of the landowners reported having a written forest management plan. Trees had been harvested by 57% of landowners while 45% plan to harvest trees in the future and 32% said they may eventually harvest trees. The top three objectives for owning forestland included “As an estate to pass on to my children or heirs” (53%), “Part of my residence/farm” (44%), and “A place to relax/privacy” (41%). These objectives are similar to the top responses found in Birch (1997).

Table 2 (Appendix A) gives a brief evaluation summary data for the 16 workshops. Results indicated that landowners derived great value from the workshops. Landowners felt the information they received would help them earn more money by managing their timber. They estimated the value of the information they received at $6.8 million. While it was difficult to assess the accuracy of landowner estimates, they were in the best position to know what has, or has not, been done on their land. Also, these figures could actually be conservative, as fewer than half of participants provide an economic value on the evaluation form. Most participants indicated that they will benefit economically from the workshop, but the impact was either not listed or unknown. Appendix D contains complete evaluation summaries for the 16 workshops.

Attendance was considerably above that normally associated with “traditional” Extension forestry workshops. Attendance averaged 81.4, and workshop planners were frequently surprised, given that traditional forestry educational programs usually average less than 50 attendees. Most importantly, conversations with county Extension agents, USDA representatives, and others responsible for working with landowners indicated that most participants were “new” to them, thus indicating that the targeted audience was potentially being reached.

Given the consistently successful turnout, it was informative to learn how participants heard of the workshop. This will help with improving the planning, promoting, and conducting of more successful programs in the future. In the evaluation process, participants were asked, “How did you learn about this workshop?” Landowners were requested to check all that applied. Options listed included a letter, brochure/flyer, newspapers, radio, church, personal contacts, and other. It was apparent that the landowner letter was the primary way participants learned about the workshop. This has important implications for Extension programs, as publicity relying on traditional techniques (i.e., news releases, radio, TV) was not as effective, particularly with underserved audiences.

For the 16 workshops, there was a direct relationship between the number of landowner letters mailed and workshop attendance (R2 = 0.72). Traditional newspaper readership is declining as demographics change and the public obtains news items from a variety of sources. Additionally, a greater percentage of landowners are absentee landowners, and do not subscribe to local newspapers or learn about workshops through other local media outlets. For these reasons, direct mail is the most effective way to reach forest landowners.

Another area of interest centered on behavioral changes that occurred as a result of the workshops. Specifically, this included whether the workshop would encourage landowners to use professional foresters to assist them in managing their forestland. Research shows that landowners benefit both economically and otherwise when they use a professional forester (Munn and Franklin 1995). Therefore, the evaluation asked two questions in succession. First, “Have you used a professional forester in the past?” Second, “Do you plan to use a professional forester in the future?” Overall, 39% of landowners used a forester in the past, while 95% plan to use a professional forester in the future. This demonstrated a fundamental shift in how participants view foresters. Rather than viewing foresters as a cost, landowners apparently perceived foresters as a benefit or an investment.

Underserved forest landowner workshops conducted in the South-Central U.S. have consistently attracted larger numbers of participants than more traditional Extension forestry programs. Most participants were “new” to Extension and USDA personnel, indicating the desired audience, underserved landowners, was potentially being reached. Evaluations indicated that landowners value the information received, and anticipated greater monetary returns because of the workshop information and materials provided. Successful workshops hinge on developing a local planning committee and using tax rolls to identify and reach landowners.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Two articles have been published or accepted for publication. “Forest Landowner Education Programs: These Aren’t Just Your Daddy’s Farm Field Days!” was published in the March/April 2003 edition for Forest Landowner. Additionally, another article, “Cooperative Educational Effort Targeting Underserved Forest Landowners in the South-Central United States” has been accepted for publication in the 2003 IUFRO Proceedings for the 6th Working Party Symposium: Building Capacity through Collaboration. Appendix F contains copies of these articles. In addition, articles will be submitted in the Spring of 2004 to the Journal of Extension, Southern Journal of Applied Forestry, and the Proceedings of the 2004 Southern Forest Economic Workers Conference.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Through the research component, more was learned about underserved forest landowners, their needs and desires, and ways to design effective programs for this target audience. Each workshop addressed how to meet both current and future needs of forest landowners. The outcome will be landowners becoming more knowledgeable about how to realize the full range of benefits from their forestland.

There were several outcomes from both the research and outreach components of this project. The focus group sessions resulted in a detailed mail questionnaire. This questionnaire provided us with new or updated information about forest landowners. The mail questionnaire results will allow agencies and other interested parties to better reach underserved landowners with appropriate messages and workshop content.

To facilitate the mail questionnaire and adequately publicize the workshops, significant financial resources were committed to purchasing tax roll information. This information was used to identify forest landowners, and all landowners with 10 or more acres of forestland received a letter inviting them to the workshop. This proved critical, as most workshop participants indicated they learned of the workshop through direct mail. While critical to the success of the mail questionnaire and workshop, purchasing the tax roll information will have even greater utility in the future as a database for advertising upcoming forestry educational programs.

In addition, Louisiana and Arkansas indicated they were trying to obtain landowner databases for the remaining parishes and counties in their respective states. Louisiana plans to continue conducting the underserved forest landowner workshops in different parishes every year. Arkansas has begun attempts to receive additional funding to conduct the workshops in other counties as well.

On a larger scale, this project has provided a workshop format that can be used as a template for successful educational programs elsewhere. The workshop format, with adjustments, can be used in most any state. The importance of direct mail in reaching landowners was demonstrated, and likely applies to educational programs in other states as well.

Farmer Adoption

Many forestland owners are farmers and vice versa. The study results and ensuing workshops should have a positive effect on these landowners and lead to adoption of technologies and administrative steps addressing the sustainable management of their forests. Since this study was primarily focused an education and information gathering and distribution, future assessments would be needed to judge the extent to which landowners adopted various practices.


Areas needing additional study

An area needing additional study would be to conduct a follow-up questionnaire of workshop participants to determine if they have implemented any of the activities or forest management practices they indicated they would pursue in the future. This would include assessing the perceived and realized monetary benefits accrued. In addition, an assessment would need to be made on the landowner status, relative to being served. In other words, how many landowners have crossed the line from being “underserved” to now utilizing some of the technical, financial, and educational resources available to them?

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.