Using behavior change and social-ecological frameworks to inform riparian forest buffer outreach in the Maryland Upper Potomac watershed

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Land in the Maryland Upper Potomac watershed is predominantly privately held. Watershed restoration efforts seek to improve water quality through the implementation of riparian forest buffers. However, those efforts rely on aggregated actions of the individuals within the watershed, and adoption rates for the past decade have been below annual targets. An understanding of outreach strategies that promote riparian forest buffer adoption in a complex social-ecological system is needed. Employing qualitative methods, we integrated social-ecological and behavior change frameworks to better understand riparian forest buffer outreach and adoption in the Maryland Upper Potomac watershed. We conducted nineteen interviews with key stakeholders, followed by a quantification of main findings through landowner and practitioner questionnaires. Findings demonstrate that there is no “one size fits all” strategy. Rather, riparian forest buffer outreach needs interpersonal connections between landowners and practitioners to build trust and account for context-specific ecological feedbacks. There is opportunity to further reinforce riparian forest buffers through activities that demonstrate and leverage norms, impacting adoption through social feedbacks.