Connections between people, institutions, and environments shape both ecological and social conditions. Our mixed-methods research investigates these relationships between society and environment, focusing on conservation, adaptive ecosystem management, and sustainable resource use. We examine forests, wildlife, rangelands, agriculture, and water resources both locally and nationally, through participatory research approaches. Our research centers around three themes:

1) natural resource policy design, implementation, and evaluation
2) ecological outcomes of resource policy and conservation strategies
3) social and legal adaptation to environmental change

Private land conservation strategies
farm fencePrivate lands are critical for biodiversity, natural resource production, water quality, and aesthetic values, yet they are increasingly threatened by development, parcelization, and unsustainable land uses. Our group examines a variety of approaches to land trust and government conservation of private lands, including acquisition of land and conservation easements, tax policy, and regulation. Themes of interest include property rights; the social relations of monitoring and enforcement; ecological outcomes; and policy-making for dynamic ecosystems.

Water sustainability and climate in an urbanizing agricultural region
The Water Sustainability and Climate project is an interdisciplinary effort to examine how ecosystem services related to freshwater can be sustained as climate, land cover and management, the built environment and human demands change. We are focused on the Yahara Watershed in southern Wisconsin. Our contributions to the project are investigating land and water resources governance and interventions; examine the adaptive responses of actors and institutions to changing environmental conditions; analyze efforts to improve nutrient management practices; develop a conceptual framework for linking social and ecological systems; and participate in scenario planning.

Conservation easements and environmental change
Climate change may significantly alter the species composition, ecological function, and economic utility of protected areas. These changes raise a variety of questions for the permanence and adaptability of conservation easements. A six-university research effort has examined conservation easement terms and land trust and government staff perspectives on adapting conservation easements to climate change. We are also engaged in outreach to land trust and government conservation practitioners, policy makers, funders, and academics.

Digital mapping of private land conservation
We are launching a survey of conservation organizations – land trusts and government agencies – to understand perspectives on digital maps of conservation easements. Many organizations have chosen to share digital information through platforms like the National Conservation Easement Database, while others have not. We are interested in learning more about all perspectives and experiences with digital mapping.

climate change impactsClimate change impacts and adaptations in Wisconsin forests
Climate change has the potential to impact forestry and outdoor recreation through changes to snow and frozen ground conditions. To address these concerns, we are investigating historical trends in weather, road conditions, and trail conditions, and conducting interviews with resource users and policy makers. We have also completed a study on past and projected future land cover change in Wisconsin and quantified impacts on core forest area, forest connectivity, and carbon sequestration and storage. Finally, we are examining organizational learning and adaptation in response to environmental changes such as invasive species and climate change.

Forest tax and land use policies on private land
Property taxes are an important policy driving private land use and conservation. Forest property tax incentives were developed in the early 1900s, but their ongoing contributions to landscape connectivity between public and private forests are not well understood. This project measured spatial patterns in a GIS, and analyzed tax program laws and policies. We focused on Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law and Forest Crop Law, with 1.1 million ha enrolled. Although they are a voluntary, untargeted policy tool, forest tax programs provide the unintended but important benefit of connectivity with public lands. If stakeholders recognize forest tax programs as a means to achieve landscape planning goals, they could coordinate cross-boundary management efforts and target areas of particular conservation interest.

Linking science and policy: conservation performance and accountability
Conservation scientists, funders, and practitioners are calling for evidence-based conservation in which monitoring is used to assess and improve conservation program performance. We utilized network analysis, document analysis, and interviews to examine monitoring and reporting in diverse conservation policy networks. These case studies reveal gaps in the flow of monitoring data, especially for dispersed or devolved governance networks. We also found disconnects between sources of accountability pressure, scientists, and local program managers. This research suggests the need for greater development of standards and outcome measures and better integration of science with program implementation. More challengingly, it suggests complex political and administrative contexts for conservation program performance, characterized by conflicting goals and incongruence across spatial and temporal scales.