Motivating grassland restoration: Designing incentive programs that work
Woody plant encroachment on rangelands in the Southern Great Plains of the United States is highly resilient making grassland restoration challenging and costly for private landowners. Incentive programs can be flexible, powerful tools to promote grassland restoration by reducing the costs of doing so. Current programs may be welcomed by landowners whose focus is on livestock production, but demographic data suggests that the social landscape may be changing from one dominated by production-oriented landowners to one dominated by landowners focusing on natural and cultural amenities. With a potential shift in landowner type comes a shift in the knowledge and value systems that drive land management decisions. A question exists about the role of incentives in engaging landowners with heterogeneous preferences for land use and land management.
Using incentive programs to achieve grassland restoration across a landscape in the face of a potential shift in culture requires adapting incentive programs to the social landscape. Programs designed with an overemphasis on financial payments at the expense of program structure and delivery can result in lower participation rates and hidden costs that subvert: 1) the potential to achieve ecological outcomes, and 2) opportunities to engender a stewardship ethic for the maintenance of grasslands. A landowner-centered approach to program design focuses on characterizing the unarticulated needs of landowners and employs participatory processes to co-create incentive programs that are complementary with the internal motivations of landowners. This approach recognizes the inherent social and ecological complexity—grassland stewardship behaviors are grounded by place, and occur in different social, political, cultural, and economic contexts. Incentive programs explicitly designed with empathy for landowner needs can increase the capacity of the Southern Great Plains to adapt to the local context, and achieve participation levels at rates high enough that they scale up to influence grassland restoration at a landscape scale.