CORVALLIS, Ore. – In theory, almost everyone believes in clean streams, healthy fisheries and protected watersheds. In reality, when the mechanisms to actually achieve those goals are suggested or implemented, the public reactions are all over the map – and sometimes hostile and often confusing.
A recent survey of community opinions about the Johnson Creek watershed that flows through urban Portland, Ore., has illustrated this conundrum. It’s a watershed with considerable river and wetland resources, as well as urban growth and expansion in upland regions. In recent years new regulations have emerged as a result of endangered species protection, the Clean Water Act and other laws.
In this instance, while a desire for clean streams was voiced by most, there were also strong concerns about intrusive government regulations, disputes over who should pay the bills, and clear differences between those who lived closest to the streams and those further away.
“The human dimensions of natural resource protection are increasingly important,” said Mary Santelmann, director of the Water Resources Graduate Program at Oregon State University, and adviser to Kelli Larson, the doctoral student who conducted the research.
“No one is against clean water until the actions necessary to achieve it hit too close to home, whether that’s new regulations, taxes or something else,” Santelmann said. “So we have to figure out why people feel and react the way they do, and how we can make our regulatory approaches more compatible with people’s interests and opinions.”
A survey of 816 residents in this study, which was recently published in the journal Professional Geographer, identified wide-ranging attitudes about watershed protection.
“If nothing else, the survey shows that watershed residents want policy makers to listen to them,” Santelmann said. “Many local residents are people who have lived near and taken care of streams for generations, who often love these waterways. We could probably learn a lot from some of them.”
And reactions that seem to go against stream protection, Santelmann said, are more than a “not in my backyard,” knee-jerk protest against government involvement. Many people living near streams feel they are being blamed unfairly for problems that are actually being caused by others, such as new developments on nearby hillsides.
Among the reactions and findings in the survey:
• People who think they are protecting a resource find it difficult to believe they may be part of the problem.
• Tough regulations are always a key sticking point, given the Western belief system in individualism and private property rights.
• An array of policy options that are developed in close consultation with local residents, and includes active measurements of progress, tends to work better than top-down government dictates.
• People who live nearest the streams and enjoy their scenic or recreational benefits are strongly for stream protection, but also often have the most negative attitudes toward land use restrictions that could have an impact on their property values.
• About 97 percent of the people supported clean streams and wetlands, but 21 percent opposed any regulations as a policy option, 30 percent thought the federal government should have no involvement in the issue, and 49 percent rejected increased property taxes as an option.
• Many respondents were willing to consider other local mechanisms to help pay for stream improvements, such as fees on new development, taxes on polluting products, and even fines on land use violations.
• Underlying environmental and political beliefs were often linked to specific issues, and often go a long way toward explaining conflicting viewpoints.
• Strong support was voiced for contributions by both residents and businesses, so that burdens of stream recovery and protection were more equally shared.
Some of the written statements obtained in the survey offered insights into resident opinions.
“Those of us living along streams have been stewards for decades,” one local resident wrote. “Yet we are often treated as the evil that needs to be corrected.”
Another resident cited new development of businesses on upstream hills as causing more runoff and local flooding, and said that, “The city allowed the business to be built, but still restrict the homeowners on developing their land. This is very unfair and it seems as the city does not care about the wetlands that surround our property.”
The study suggested that one possible policy approach might be tax breaks or financial rewards for riparian landowners who are good stewards of resources. Other steps must also be taken to recognize and deal with the disparate views of those who live closer to streams and those further away.
Water resource planners must go beyond traditional economic and environmental considerations when planning policies and regulations, the study concluded, and consider public perceptions and attitudes.