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In Alaska, Perceptions and Realities of Ecological Threats Diverge

A new study shows that time is just one factor shaping perceptions of spruce bark beetle infestations on the Kenai Peninsula.
Lost Lake, Kenai Peninsula. (Photo: Christoph Strässler/Flickr)

Lost Lake, Kenai Peninsula. (Photo: Christoph Strässler/Flickr)

In a perfect world, our awareness of environmental issues would depend entirely on how serious a given issue is. But, as you probably know, that's simply not the case. Need proof? A recent study shows how psychological, cultural, and economic forces interact to shape people's feelings about beetle infestations on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula—and how little those feelings have to do with the severity of the infestations themselves.

Among the more prominent ideas in public opinion research is what's called the issue-attention cycle, whereby political issues seem to leap to prominence and then slowly fade from the public consciousness over time, regardless of whether anything gets resolved. "[An] issue may go away from the public agenda, but the problem is still there," says Hua Qin, an assistant professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri and lead author of the study.

These findings suggest that we can't assume interest in an environmental issue will always decline over time; rather, time is just one factor that drives changing beliefs and views.

Alongside colleagues Courtney Flint and A.E. Luloff, Qin decided to test that idea in six Kenai communities—Anchor Point, Cooper Landing, Homer, Moose Pass, Ninilchik, and Seldovia—where spruce bark beetles have been devastating forests for decades. Between 2004 and 2008, the researchers sent a series of surveys to residents of those towns asking about relationships with public and private land managers, economic issues such as poverty or the source of a town's income, and perceptions of risk from forest fires. (At the time of the surveys, beetle infestations were thought to increase forest fire risk, though recent studies have called into question that assumption.)

Consistent with the issue-attention model, locals' concerns about the beetles did wane with time, despite there being essentially no change in the extent of beetle attacks from 2004 to 2008. But a closer look at the data revealed that things were "not so simple," Qin says. As a community's experience with wildfires increased, for example, so too did concerns about future fires and ecological or economic risks. Similarly, community members who thought beetles had killed a greater proportion of local forests also perceived more substantial risks compared with those who believed there was less of an impact. In turn, the more someone perceived risk, the more they took action, like participating in fire prevention and conservation efforts.

These findings suggest that we can't assume interest in an environmental issue will always decline over time, Qin says; rather, time is just one factor that drives changing beliefs and views. Taking into account the "diverse pathways" that influence perceptions could help forestry officials better engage the public in tackling beetle infestations, and not just in Alaska. Qin says he's working on a study in a region of Colorado where mountain pine beetles pose a similar threat to the one forests face on the Kenai Peninsula.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.