Land use and land cover decision-making: An ecosystem services and extreme weather perceptions study of Gulf of Mexico private forest owners
Type of DegreePhD Dissertation
Forestry and Wildlife Science
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The northern Gulf of Mexico has a distinct contrast in land cover between the highly urban coastline and rural and forested areas inland. Regular occurrence of extreme weather events leaves both urban and rural landowners at regular risk of severe damage. One area of particular concern is known as the “Emerald Coast”, and it stretches from Apalachicola Bay to the western edge of the Florida panhandle. In this region, upstream forest landowners have been increasingly deciding to convert their woodland out of forest cover in recent years. The purpose of this project was (1) to investigate the underlying factors which affect private forest owner land use and land cover decisions, (2) to assess risk perceptions of forest professionals and the representation of risks in Emerald Coast newspapers, and (3) to measure private forest owners’ social valuation of the ecosystem services provided by their forests. From July to September 2022, we conducted a quantitative survey of private forest landowners in coastal Alabama and the Florida panhandle. In winter and spring of 2023, we interviewed large scale forest professionals and conducted a content analysis of local and regional newspapers. We found that most of the private forest owner sample planned to retain forest cover for most of their woodland in the next decade, that they did not perceive tropical cyclone patterns to be an important driver of their land use decisions, and we identified several social and ecological factors which influenced decision-making. We found that the large-scale forest professionals and regional newspapers most frequently emphasized socio-political and economic categories of risks, followed by natural hazards, and that the professionals’ risk management strategies were influenced by their levels of risk tolerance and perceived control. Finally, we found that the forest owner sample valued biodiversity higher than all categories of ecosystem services and that the majority of respondents showed interest in incentives for maintaining ecosystem services.