CORVALLIS - A new national survey to evaluate public understanding and acceptance of forest fuel reduction techniques found a fairly low level of overall awareness but some cautious support for practices many land managers across the nation feel will be essential to restoring forest health.
The study was conducted by the forest resources departments at Oregon State University and Utah State University. It questioned people about their knowledge and attitudes toward wildfire, and the use of controlled fire or mechanical thinning that experts say are essential tools to address the insect epidemics, overcrowding, tree diseases, catastrophic fires and other problems that face many forests, especially in the West.
"Although the survey identified pockets of support for many of the new trends in forest management, one-third of the respondents had given no consideration at all to forest fires or the condition of America's forests," said Bruce Shindler, an OSU associate professor of forest resources. "There clearly is a lot of work to do to build public understanding and support, and until then it's going to be difficult for our land management agencies to do what's needed to address some very serious problems."
The study contacted 1,722 people across the nation from a broad cross-section of urban, small town and rural areas, 85 percent of whom lived within 200 miles or less of a state or national forest, or national park, and most of whom visited those areas at least once a year. The survey had a response rate of 44 percent.
After people had heard a description of prescribed fire and mechanical thinning practices, 41 percent said controlled burns were a legitimate tool that resource managers should be able to use as they see fit. Another 39 percent believe the practice should be done but only at selected times and places. Support for limited use of mechanical vegetation removal was slightly higher.
Among the other findings:
- Most people get their information about natural resources from television, newspapers or magazines, but far fewer had any experience with federal forest agencies and only 20 percent found these sources particularly useful. Environmental groups and the Internet were rated even lower.
- About 60 percent of respondents had a high level of trust in the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make good management decisions. A much lower level of support was found for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs.
- Key management terms such as controlled burn or forest thinning were widely recognized by people, but only 20 percent were familiar with other concepts such as a riparian zone or forest succession.
- Almost half the respondents inaccurately believed that humans cause most of the wildfires in the United States; most fires are actually caused by lightning, particularly in the West.
- About 38 percent of people did not know that fires can be an important force in controlling disease and insect outbreaks in forests and rangelands.
- The concerns about prescribed fire cited by 53 percent or more of respondents included loss of wildlife and fish habitat, risk to human safety, damage to private property, deteriorated public water supply and increased levels of smoke.
- About 41 percent of respondents did not know about, or incorrectly believed that prescribed fires kill most large trees in a burned area.
- Even after years of public discussion about the use of controlled fire, 47 percent of the respondents are unsure or agree that all fires, regardless or origin, should be put out soon as possible.
- About half the respondents said that nature's way is preferable to any human intervention in ecosystems.
"This survey clearly shows a considerable lack of understanding and perhaps disinterest among the public about wildfire, as well as a certain amount of distrust of federal agencies," Shindler said. "This makes it difficult for our land management agencies to take action. America has grown up with a 'Smokey Bear' mentality that all forest fires are bad, and the fact that fire is a natural part of many forest ecosystems is a message we still have not effectively conveyed."
It was of some interest, Shindler said, that there didn't seem to be a large difference in responses from people who lived in urban or rural areas. More urban dwellers are moving to rural settings and the natural resource-based economies that were traditional to these areas continue to dwindle, he said, resulting in less of an "urban-rural split" of opinion that was more common in the past.
The study also questioned people about whether the prescribed fires that got out of control last year in Los Alamos, N.M., affected their feelings on this issue. A slight majority said it did, and of those, 66 percent were more skeptical of the ability of natural resource agencies to effectively implement a prescribed fire program. But despite that, 60 percent thought Los Alamos was an isolated incident that should not preclude the use of prescribed fire elsewhere in the country.
This survey was one part of a larger Joint Fire Science Program that is ongoing, officials say. Six other surveys are currently under way in fire-prone regions of Oregon, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Georgia, to identify issues and attitudes among people who live more closely to affected areas of forest and rangeland. These studies will also try to identify demographic characteristics that may be relevant to citizen attitudes, such as urban-rural residence, group membership, level of activism, education, economic livelihood, and knowledge of management practices.
Individual studies are also being designed at each of these locations that will help identify the effectiveness of different types of public outreach and educational programs to improve public understanding and awareness of some of these forest ecology issues.