Cultural Dimensions of Landscape Change in the Florida Panhandle


In recent decades, the South has experienced rapid growth in terms of population increase and industrial, commercial, and residential expansion. Of the ten states nationally with the greatest amount of nonfederal, rural land loss from 1992 to 1997, seven were in the South (USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, 2000). Such land conversion is expected to continue into the foreseeable future. More than 30 million acres of forest land in the South are projected to be converted to developed uses by 2040 (Wear, 2002).

This growth is particularly apparent in rural areas of the Florida Panhandle-Gulf, Franklin, and Wakulla Counties. Unlike other parts of Florida, these counties have remained largely rural and undeveloped for decades, with higher rates of poverty and unemployment compared to the rest of the state. This sub-region of the panhandle is still mostly undeveloped, in part, because of its relative isolation from the state's major thoroughfares. There are only two federal highways that run through these counties. The St. Joe Paper Company operated a paper mill in Franklin County for over 60 years, employing more than 500 local residents. In 2000, the company sold its mill and refocused its efforts on real estate and land development. The company owns approximately one million acres in Florida, making it the largest and most profitable private landowner in the state. The newly named St. Joe Company has plans to introduce extensive development in both Gulf and Franklin and possibly Wakulla Counties

This research project will be conducted through a partnership between the Southern Research Station and Florida A&M University. The research team will examine the cultural dimension of landscape change in Franklin and Gulf Counties, Florida and examine cultural identity in terms of how people see themselves as individuals and collectives in the places where they live and how landscape change may influence these self-perceptions.

Research Methods

We will use focus groups to collect these data because this methodology provides a setting conducive to discussion. Focus groups have an advantage over closed-ended interviewing in that the former allows respondents the freedom to discourse about an issue in a social setting. Respondents are encouraged to discuss ideas and positions and to elaborate on points in an effort to understand better motivations and desires.

The research team will conduct pilot focus groups before the formal data are collected. We will review this data in consultation with key community informants before undertaking the main set of focus groups. The purpose of the piloting is to identify potential problems with our methodology. Focus group data will be analyzed with content analysis.

Expected Products

  1. Qualitative, focus group data and summary report.
  2. Journal articles co-authored by USDA Forest Service researchers and FAMU faculty.
  3. Presentation of research findings to community groups.
  4. Executive summary on Interface South website and associated handout.