Gooden PAN-18-11-098.R2
Flood plain easement in North Dakota, part of the Red River Basin Initiative, which aims to reduce erosion, improve water quality and store water during flood events on private lands through voluntary conservation efforts. Credit: USDA, public domain.

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In response to growing concern about biodiversity loss, some people have created privately owned nature reserves by purchasing land to protect it. Conservation psychology has been used to analyze land management actions like this, leading to a better understanding of the ways attitudes, values, and motivation interact with behavior. However, less research has been done on identity, which is a person’s self-concept and beliefs about who they are, and the way identity interacts with conservation land ownership.

In this study, I interviewed the owners of private nature reserves in thirteen countries, and I found that landowners’ properties influenced their identity. Some said, for example, “the mountain imprints a character on the people” or “the small things of the place, the weather, the animals, the landscape…they mark a person for life.” To explore the relationship between identity and land, I used an idea from the earliest days of Western psychology: William James’s concept of the extended self, which views the self not only as a body, but as a web of relational connections with other people, things, and activities that give meaning to life.

I found that people identified with three aspects of their nature reserves – with the land as a place, as a possession, and as a personal project. Land ownership and management impacted people in many ways. For example, for some, the land offered a sense of continuity, anchoring the present to the past and future. For others, the skills developed through land management contributed to self-efficacy or an opportunity to express creativity. For many, nature reserves provided an opportunity to do something that was meaningful.

Privately owned nature reserves offer a valuable case study of projects that are valuable for both nature conservation and human well-being. Understanding how people’s identities and self-concepts interact with conservation land ownership presents opportunities to integrate identity into conservation program design.