Human impacts on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems continue to escalate at unprecedented rates. Research on the factors that shape human behaviors cannot be undervalued, because some people tend to act in environmentally-friendly ways whereas others make decisions that exacerbate pressures on the natural world. My research group provides insight into mechanisms such as values, norms, and attitudes that explain how people perceive their surroundings and commit to behaviors that minimize environmental degradation. While much of this work is necessarily interdisciplinary in nature, I am particularly interested in testing psychological theories to understand behavior change and inform management decisions about how best to sustain ecosystem structures and functions in protected areas.
Multi-level values and environmental behavior in protected areas
National parks and protected areas generate considerable economic benefit and play important roles in sustaining ecological integrity on a global scale. These places also attract and maintain public support due to their social values that serve as motivators for owning, managing, and conserving natural resources. However, these social values are underrepresented in conservation research and practice, as well as less easily quantified and measured across spatial scales. Our research in this arena investigates the spatial dynamics of social values for ecosystem services, individual and cultural values that influence human decisions, and the relationship between human perceptions and on-ground condiitons such as species richness, landcover change, and distance to landscape features. This work has been conducted in protected areas such as Denali National Park and Preserve (Alaska), Channel Islands National Park (California), and Hinchinbrook Island National Park (Australia) to identify spatial priorities for public land management agencies, integrate social and ecological data, and identify the drivers of human behavior in natural resource management contexts.
Collaborators: Matt Brownlee, Rose Keller, Maria Chu, Gerard Kyle, Stephen Sutton, Alisa Coffin, Ken Bagstad, Benson Sherrouse
Community resilience in protected grasslands
This project is directed at understanding changes in social and economic conditions of rural communities, and adapting a framework that builds community resilience, in context of grassland protection. The orientation of this work is to enhance the capacity of rural communities to frame regional development of natural amenities, like grassland protection, as opportunities to strengthen their social and economic well-being. Our objectives are to: (1) conduct a nation-wide assessment of the economic impacts of bison re-introduction in contexts of protected grasslands; (2) engage with community stakeholders at two study sites in rural Illinois and Iowa to assess a regional sense of place and capacity for change using in-depth techniques; (3) determine the tradeoffs residents of the two study sites are willing to make among competing future growth scenarios; and (4) foster mutual learning and explore ways that stakeholders of the two study sites can adapt to change in response to the results generated in the proposed study.
Collaborators: William Stewart, Paul Gobster, Amy Ando
Human dimensions of fisheries management
Mounting evidence suggests that human behavior is a primary driver of the spread of aquatic nuisance species including varieties of fish, invertebrates, plants, and mollusks. Although many people are aware that these organisms are changing the face of ecosystems and local economies, research suggests that engagement in behaviors impacting the environment have continued. In this project, we are closing this so called ‘knowledge-action gap’ by addressing the following research question: How do social, ecological, and managerial conditions shape angler behaviors that minimize the spread of aquatic nuisance species across waterways in Illinois? We have relied on qualitative information about environmental communication strategies and quantitative measures of the factors that influence the behaviors and decisions of anglers in Illinois. Building on these findings, we will be examining tradeoffs among individual (e.g., normative messaging, perceived environmental conditions) and institutional (e.g., fishing regulations) factors that impede engagement in pro-environmental activity. In addition to advancing theoretical understanding of the complexities of angler behavior, we also providing practitioners with valuable information about how to effectively overcome barriers to sustaining freshwater ecosystems and benefiting the stakeholders who rely on them.
Collaborators: Cory Suski, Matt Browning, William Stewart, Richard Stedman, Marc Gaden
Urban Greening and Chicago’s Large Lot Program
We are assessing the benefits of the City of Chicago “Large Lot Program,” which is a residential land use approach developed as part of the City’s Green Healthy Neighborhoods public planning process. The program allows homeowners in qualifying neighborhoods to purchase vacant lots on their block for $1 for green space and developed uses. It is being piloted in community areas where the City owns large amounts of vacant land with the goals to: 1) Give local residents greater control over vacant land in their neighborhood; 2) Increase safety, build community, and raise home values by creating more neighborhood-level investment; 3) Dispose of some of the City-owned land in these neighborhoods efficiently, which returns the land to the tax rolls; and 4) Create wealth in the community by allowing owners to sell land after 5 years. With support from the USDA Forest Service, we are conducting this research to better understand the social and environmental aspects of urban natural resource stewardship, how private lands can contribute public benefits, how urban sustainability initiatives can jointly address social, environmental and economic concerns, and how green space programs can include a broader range of individuals.
Collaborators: William Stewart, Paul Gobster, Douglas Willams
Agro-Ecosystem Services in the Kaskaskia Watershed
The sustainability of agro-ecosystems depends on their ability to deliver multiple ecosystem services that include socio-cultural (e.g., recreation) and ecological (e.g., water supply, biodiversity) dimensions. However, management actions and policies that enhance some services from agricultural landscapes may have contrasting effects on others. The main objective of this study is to determine how existing and projected environmental and socio-cultural stressors influence multiple agro-ecosystem services in the Kaskaskia River Watershed. Taking a two-pronged approach, we will first engage community stakeholders in focus groups and participatory mapping exercises to identify existing and projected stressors that influence the provision of agro-ecosystem services. Next, we will quantify the impacts of these stressors using metrics simulated by physically-based hydrologic and environmental models. This study will not only enable decision-makers to adopt more sustainable practices but will also build the capacity of rural communities to cope with changes to the ecosystem services on which they rely.
Collaborators: Maria Chu, William Stewart, Cory Suski