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Harvard Forest Data Archive


Land Owner Decisions and Consequences in North Central Massachusetts 1950-2009

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  • Lead: David Kittredge
  • Investigators:
  • Contact: Information Manager
  • Start date: 1950
  • End date: 2009
  • Status: completed
  • Location: North Central Massachusetts
  • Latitude: +42.30162 to +42.72851
  • Longitude: -72.47918 to -71.92306
  • Elevation: 50 to 400 meter
  • Taxa: Homo sapiens (human)
  • Release date: 2015
  • Revisions:
  • EML file: knb-lter-hfr.248.2
  • DOI: digital object identifier
  • EDI: data package
  • DataONE: data package
  • Related links:
  • Study type: long-term measurement, historical
  • Research topic: conservation and management; regional studies
  • LTER core area: disturbance
  • Keywords: conservation, land use, management, timber harvest
  • Abstract:

    Landscapes dominated by private ownership experience change as properties change hands, change monetary value, undergo land use conversion, become isolated or lose road access, or are divided and hence smaller in size. The future ecological integrity, connectivity, and function of landscapes dominated by private ownership depend on the speed or frequency with which decisions are made, the kinds of decisions, and their outcomes or consequences. One way to study this human behavior on land is through attitudinal surveys of owners investigating their motivations, beliefs, and values. Another is to pose hypothetical circumstances and query owners about potential response or reactions. Another involves the study of social networks around owners, and determining the extent to which information flows between owners and may influence decisions. We proposed instead to study or monitor decisions made and resulting circumstances, and to establish a long-term framework or network of points at which land owner decisions will be sampled over time. In essence, we proposed to study behavior enacted on the landscape, rather than individual people. Data derived from this network and sampling will inform land use scenario modeling efforts to forecast the future trajectory of the landscape, its rate of change, and subsequent potential provision of ecosystem services.

    The network was established to monitor change over time in the future, but an important aspect was to establish the baseline and antecedent circumstances that led to existing conditions. A classic historic study following specific decision-making over time on land ownership over generations is told in the Sanderson Farm story at the Harvard Forest:

    Establishment of the baseline and historic circumstances will inform models of future decisions. The summer 2009 project was a proof-of-concept to test the extent to which points could be established and antecedent historic land ownership data could be acquired. Subsequent future maintenance of the network and monitoring activity will enable test or validate the models, and improve forecasting of future scenarios. The network of sample points will also provide a structure to survey landowner attitudes, as their landscapes or surroundings evolve.

    This REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) project involved one undergraduate summer intern and established a test network of 100 randomly located points in the North Quabbin area surrounding the Harvard Forest. All points were located on privately owned forest. This involved knowledge and application of GIS and spatial data, as well as study of deed and land transaction records, harvest permits, and census data. The REU student located the sample points on maps in a GIS, and studied ownership parcel and tax data to determine current ownership, and then tracked real estate transactions back through time via county tax and land transfer records, assembling a provenance and sequential history of land ownership for each point, as well as ancillary data (e.g., date of decision, result of decision).

    By using the Registry of Deeds for transaction and spatial data, and tracking the ownership of land over time, we studied patterns or trends in the types of decisions land owners typically make about their land (e.g., changing ownership, acreage, and price). We compiled ownership provenance for 60 randomly selected points, in so doing developing an excellent estimate of the time required to further develop the network. We also determined type of ownership (e.g., single owner, joint/spousal, larger family) and the extent to which people own adjacent parcels.

    Results: When landscapes are dominated by private ownerships, the frequency and consequences of their decisions have ecosystem implications. In this pilot study in north central Massachusetts, we estimated on average landowners are making a decision (i.e., timber harvest, convey an easement, sell land) every 12 years. Average tenure of ownership is 18 years. Ownerships are comprised of multiple, adjacent parcels, and the resulting mean ownership size was 145 acres. Roughly one third of properties were owned by a single individual decision-maker, with the balance being owned by spousal couples, families, businesses, or others. This blend of multiple owners for properties complicates the decision-making process that controls the aggregate future socioecological trajectories of landscapes.

    Specific results included: 1. Larger parcels of forested land typically get parcelized less and show more stability, and as parcels get smaller, the amount of decisions made about the land varies more and more. 2. Those owners that own some or any of the adjacent parcels typically own larger sized parcels, usually above 50 acres. 3. Most decisions are made at the ownership level, composed of multiple parcels, instead of a single parcel. 4. The rate of decision-making for businesses is considerably slower than it is for other types of land-owners. 5. Most owners are multiple people (e.g., families) and only 1/3rd are individuals. 6. The decision to harvest seems to have a relation to parcel size. 7. The harvest and sale-of-land decisions appear unrelated to each other. 8. Most decisions are made at the ownership level, composed of multiple parcels, instead of a single parcel. 9. The rate of decision-making for businesses is considerably slower than it is for other types of land-owners.

    These results provide an indication of the rate and kind of decisions owners are making, and the result of this decision making on the landscape. This technique provides an interesting methodological contrast to snapshots in time provided by mail surveys for large numbers of owners. This method more clearly shows the dynamics for individual points through time.

  • Methods:

    Data acquisition of land transactions begins with a property tax parcel map for a given town in the North Quabbin region. These are generally available from MASSGIS. Some towns have more complete parcel data than others. Towns may have the spatial rendition of parcels, but not have the associated attribute data identifying then owner. Without knowing the current owner, it is impossible to subsequently consult the online registry of deeds and begin to track the history of real estate transactions.

    Random points were generated in a GIS that fell on privately owned forest land based on 2005 land use / land cover and the protected open space datalayers available from MASSGIS. If a point fell in a parcel for which there was owner attribute data, the relevant online Registry of Deeds was consulted (i.e., either Franklin or Worcester County, depending on the location of the town).

    If there is no owner information for the parcel, then it will be impossible to do and is labeled in the master excel data file as "undone". It would also be counted as an "impossible" point if there is more than one point in the same parcel, if it is publicly owned or owned by Harvard Forest. If provided with a book and page reference, then the point should not be hard to track through the Registry of Deeds. It is much easier to track the land backwards through time and forward, so starting with the latest deed available is usually best. When the point has been traced as far back as possible, it is labeled as ‘done.’ Usually the online Registry of Deeds will only allow for tracking as far back as the 1950s, but rarely any further than that. The online registry is fairly straightforward: you must select the county in which the point is located, then search either by name of owner or by book and page, depending on the information available. The point can also be searched by location, but that is not always entirely accurate. However, there is a handy feature to search for “unindexed property.” This feature allows for someone to search for property that has not been indexed, but whose images are available. These can only be searched by book and page, but if searching backward through time, then this feature should be very useful to search further than the indexed property, which only goes as far as the 1950s.

    Each individual point has its own excel sheet, which includes the year on one side, a space in which to illustrate the decisions made by each landowner, then parcel acreage, book and page references for each decision for which it is available, the price, and land use. All but the land use information can be found in the deeds themselves. The land use column includes a note for any easements, or logging decisions made. There is a ‘template’ sheet available, found with the individual spreadsheets, which has all the necessary information outline and color-coding. It is not necessary to use this, but it does simplify the constancy of each individual spreadsheet.

  • Use:

    This dataset is released to the public under Creative Commons license CC BY (Attribution). Please keep the designated contact person informed of any plans to use the dataset. Consultation or collaboration with the original investigators is strongly encouraged. Publications and data products that make use of the dataset must include proper acknowledgement.

  • Citation:

    Kittredge D. 2015. Land Owner Decisions and Consequences in North Central Massachusetts 1950-2009. Harvard Forest Data Archive: HF248.

Detailed Metadata

hf248-01: summary data

  1. point: arbitrarily assigned number of the point
  2. latitude: latitude of point (unit: degree / missing value: NA)
  3. longitude: longitude of point (unit: degree / missing value: NA)
  4. estimated acreage for the actual parcel in which the random point falls (unit: acre / missing value: NA)
  5. estimated acreage for the parcel and the other abutting parcels owned by the same owner; thus an estimate of functional ownership rather than the absolute parcel itself (unit: acre / missing value: NA)
  6. estimated acreage for the parcel and other abutting parcels owned by the same family. Because of name changes, maiden names, etc., this column can only be completed to the best of one’s knowledge. (unit: acre / missing value: NA)
  7. the largest value of acreage for that point out of the parcel, ownership and family acreages (unit: acre / missing value: NA)
  8. owner.type: the owner of the originating parcel is a 'single' person, a 'spousal' ownership, 'family' owned, or a 'business.' An ownership in the business category may include anything from a store, a school, or any other venue that uses the land for profit to the extent of our knowledge.
  9. gender: only applied to those parcels that are owned by a single person, and only says whether that single person is male or female.
    • M: male
    • F: female
  10. status: status
    • done: completed and analyzed
    • impossible: not possible to analyze due to a lack of ownership information, difficulty of tracing the deed or owners, or some other reason
    • undone: no owner information for the parcel
  11. attributes: owner information attributes
    • yes: owner information available in the ArcGIS attribute data
    • no: owner information not available in the ArcGIS attribute data
    • Town Hall: attributes found in a Town Hall
    • Registry: attributes found in the Registry of Deeds
  12. town: town where the point is located
  13. notes: notes
  14. registry: registry of deeds
    • W: Worcester county
    • F: Franklin county
    • H: Hampshire county
  15. total.dec: number of decisions about the land where the point fell that were made in the time-frame for which the point was tracked. These decisions include actions such as: selling some land from the parcel and making it smaller; purchasing additional land and making it larger; placing an easement on the land; selling timber from the land. This latter timber sale decision is estimated through the HF database of forest harvest permits. (unit: number / missing value: NA)
  16. total.years: number of years for which the ownership activity of the point was traced (unit: number / missing value: NA)
  17. dec.year: total number of decisions / total number of years (unit: number / missing value: NA)
  18. year.dec: total number of years / total number of decisions (unit: number / missing value: NA)
  19. changes.own: a subset of ‘total decisions’; only those decisions where the land changed owners. (unit: number / missing value: NA)
  20. years.own: number of years for which ownership activity was traced / number of times ownership changed hands (unit: number / missing value: NA)
  21. cutting: year when the cutting plan was made, based on overlaying the sample point with the spatial timber harvest data (i.e., Massachusetts Timber Harvesting Study. HF080)

hf248-02: individual points

  • Compression: zip
  • Format: zip
  • Type: zip file

hf248-03: town maps

  • Compression: zip
  • Format: zip
  • Type: zip file

hf248-04: GIS data

  • Compression: zip
  • Format: zip
  • Type: zip file