Driving south on Interstate 35 in the Flint Hills of Kansas, passersby notice few eastern redcedar trees. Continuing down the road into Oklahoma, the landscape warts begin to appear more frequently. By the time people are crossing into Texas and getting deep into its heart, there are areas completely covered up by the water-sucking fire hazards and other woody plants.

This is not because the extremely invasive species can not grow in Kansas soil. Rather, the practice of prescribed burning is much more widely accepted as you travel north. Why is that? Researchers at Oklahoma State University’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources have teamed up with several partners to delve into the social acceptance of prescribed fire.

“We know quite a bit about cedar and the process of increased woody plant encroachment, and we know how to manage for it. But, the bottom line is, why do some people do that and some not,” said Sam Fuhlendorf, Groendyke Chair for Wildlife Conservation and endowed professor in OSU’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management. “The idea is to sort of couple ecology and sociology.”

Joining Fuhlendorf on this research is Chris Zou, NREM associate professor, and researchers from Texas A&M, Virginia Tech and the University of Arizona. The three-year project, “Slowing the Expansion of Woodlands and Increasing the Resilience of Grasslands in the Southern Great Plains,” is funded by a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Previous studies have cited change in climate and grazing pressure as contributing factors to the woody encroachment of these grasslands, which are heavily used for grazing. This project will expand on that by including governmental policies and social perceptions toward the use of prescribed fire.

“Guided by our conceptual woody plant encroachment social-ecological framework, we have identified important knowledge gaps in our understanding of this ongoing event and designed a research program to fill those gaps,” said Brad Wilcox, Texas A&M AgriLife Research ecologist.

Private landowners throughout the three states featured in this study will be surveyed about their thoughts on woody plant encroachment, the use of fire, their management goals and various topics concerning the makeup of their property.

Every piece of property is different and every owner will have his/her own management goals. Through this project, a model will be developed, which links the social processes to actual management practices for individual landowners.

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