A happy landowner shows off the controlled burn being implemented on his property as part of a TREX training exchange. Photo by Larry Luckham.

Topic: Communications / Outreach Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

Approaching Relationships with Landowners

Authors: Michelle Medley-Daniel

Dave, The Watershed Center’s Forestry, Fire and Fuels Program Manager, came into the office yesterday wiping the sweat from his forehead. He’d spent the better part of the day driving out to meet a landowner in a remote corner of Trinity County (where remote means a couple of hours from the nearest gas station). Dave has been working with landowners throughout the County to develop burn plans that we’ll implement as part of an upcoming TREX training exchange.

Working with landowners isn’t easy. Dave’s had to put in the time cultivating relationships with people, at times traveling long distances to tiny hamlets in the mountains. Sometimes people are interested, and sometimes they’re not, but it is rarely simple. Talking with Dave about the landowner he had traveled to meet left me reflecting on the unique skill set you need to effectively work with landowners. Landowner relationships are not a “quick sale” and can’t be handled as such. In order to engage people in FAC, and in the actions they need to take as landowners, you need to thoughtfully approach your relationships with them.

Communities of all kinds work on fire adaptation. What shape that takes depends on the characteristics of that community: the governance structure, landscape characteristics, the passions and interests of leaders and a host of other factors. Fire adaptation requires awareness and sensitivity to the intersection of nature and culture. Managing the complexity of each community’s opportunities and needs requires an intimate knowledge of what actions are ecologically appropriate, economically feasible and culturally fitting. It takes people who know the people, and the place.

Working one-on-one with landowners is something that anyone working on FAC will eventually need to do. Your particular community might require you to work with homeowners living in neighborhoods or on city lots. Or, like our Program Manager Dave, with landowners who manage large working landscapes. Regardless of the context, here are some things to keep in mind when working with home/landowners:

1. Be intentional

Make sure you’re meeting home/landowners with the intention of building a mutually beneficial relationship. While you need to know your “value proposition,” you also need to make space for the needs and ideas of the landowners and meet them with an open mind. If you’re rehearsing a canned pitch in your head while making introductions, you might miss the key information: what the landowner’s needs, concerns and interests are. Or worse, you run the risk of coming off as rude and slick. As a land manager, or organization that wants certain outcomes, it may be tempting to go in with the intention of “educating landowners” about what they need to do. This approach is often met with push-back. Understand a landowner’s connection to the land and their goals for managing it. Listen first—then offer expertise, advice or insight.

2. Be genuine

Working with a home/landowner requires a relationship-based approach. It takes time and patience to build the trust you’ll need when it comes time to ask that home/landowner to take action. They’ll be more comfortable if they get to know a real person. Because real relationships take time to grow, it’s often helpful to engage landowners in other ways, especially if it helps build community, or strengthens relationships with their neighbors. When you demonstrate that you care about the needs of the community and its members, it helps build trust and credibility.

3. Empower them

Home/landowners that have the skills or resources needed to treat their properties will be better able to take care of things in the long term. There are lots of grant programs that have helped subsidize defensible space treatments, but that only reduces people’s risk for a time. Vegetation grows. And grows back. Even on a small lot, there will be maintenance required. Helping people think about how they are going to get that work done—not just this year, but over the long haul– is an important way to engage with landowners. Empowering landowners will mean different things in different places, but whatever the context, leveraging your interaction with the landowner so they are better equipped to take care of their properties builds long term resilience.

Share your insights about working with home/landowners in the comments below.

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