Can Applying Psychology Encourage Private Land Conservation?

Anyone keeping up with policies in the United States since about 2016 knows that national protected areas are decreasing in size. At the extreme, Bears Ears monument in Utah lost all but 15% of its area in December 2017. What if conservationists could shift their focus to rely less on the ups and downs of the national government and other large, changeable institutions?

Individuals have been using their power as landowners to make conservation decisions on their land as private conservation areas, or PCAs. In their paper, “The Psychological Appeal of Owning Private Land for Conservation,” which was recently published in Conservation Biology, Jennifer Gooden and Richard Grenyer determine from interviews with landowners that allowing them some independence, providing a way to measure success and creating social connections may encourage them to create and maintain PCAs. These traits of a project align with a psychological model and increase the landowner’s wellbeing.


“Enchanted forest in autumn” by Larisa Koshkina, licensed under CC0 Public Domain


The Psychology

The authors interviewed landowners, developing and refining definitions for landowner motivations as they went. Their results suggested that landowners were encouraged by a sense of autonomy, efficacy, and social connection. Interestingly, after they gathered this data, they found that these motivations aligned with a framework called project analytic theory, which connects personal projects with a person’s intrinsic motivations and goals. The aspects of this model are structure, efficacy, community, meaning, and stress, and are based on their effect on personal wellbeing. The first three of these agree with the findings of this study, and the fourth, Gooden and Grenyer say, is supplied by the context of the biodiversity crisis. That leaves stress. While many of the landowners interviewed reported high stress levels along with high satisfaction with the project, the researchers  concluded that the other benefits of the project, combined with stress-relieving properties of connection to nature, outweighed the stress of managing the land.


NGOs “blow a lot of hot air,” according to one landowner. Similarly, governments are perceived as inefficient. Individuals may decide to buy land instead of donating money just so they can see and directly affect their impact. They can also experiment with management practices. Interestingly, strategies in which organizations use monetary incentives to encourage conservation can reduce the perceived independence of the landowners. Gooden and Grenyer suggest that these incentives should be carried out carefully. They should affirm existing motivations, rather than existing as the only incentive for a landowner to invest in conservation. Since monetary incentives do increase participation in private conservation, this method should not be discounted entirely.


The autonomy of owning land is in part an intrinsic aspect of owning a PCA; measuring the effects of a project, however, requires additional effort. Landowners like to know that what they are doing makes a difference, and the best way to do this is to measure it. Participating in a program may provide a framework for measurement. Some organizations already provide descriptions of “best practices.”

Social Connection

In addition, some owners say they benefit from the social interactions that come with managing their property. In addition to associating with those on the team managing the property, landowners benefit from connections to other landowners. They also connect to conservation organizations and universities for support. If conflicts arise around management of property, however, this can increase the stress levels of the owner.

Relevance for Programs

What can conservation organizations or governments do to encourage private conservation? The answer is rooted in the three motivations. Programs should allow as much autonomy as possible, while still being effective. One way to encourage autonomy that doesn’t reduce the large-scale effectiveness of the program is to suggest that the landowner can have some control over the fate of the property that would be otherwise out of their hands, such as by preserving the land from development through a conservation easement. The program should also include ways to measure efficacy; for example, standards and best practices. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it should connect landowners to one another through local and/or global networks.

If the conservation world is to increasingly rely on them, it is time to learn from landowners how best to work with them.


Works Cited

  1. Gooden, Jennifer, and Richard Grenyer. “The Psychological Appeal of Owning Private Land for Conservation.” Conservation Biology, 28 Aug. 2018, Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1111/cobi.13215.


  1. Gonzales, Richard, et al. “Trump Orders Largest National Monument Reduction In U.S. History.” NPR, National Public Radio, 4 Dec. 2017.


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