Researchers from the USDA’s Southern Research Station (SRS) concluded in a study that a person’s ethnicity and culture may affect their perceptions of prescribed fire. Here is an excerpt from a summary of their report:
SRS researchers Mike Bowker, Cassandra Johnson, and Ken Cordell, along with university collaborators Siew Lim, Gary Green, and Sandra Rideout-Hanzak (former SRS scientist) used data from a recent version of the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment to look at how culture affects perceptions and attitudes about fire and fire management in the South. When they analyzed the results, they found definite variations among respondents from the three most prominent ethnic groups in the South—African- Americans, Hispanics, and whites— about prescribed fire and its effects.
“The purpose of the southwide survey was to provide policymakers with a broad picture of public opinion on prescribed fire among major ethnic groups in the Southern United States,” says Bowker, SRS research social scientist based in Athens, GA. “The goal is to enhance agency communications with the public and to gain acceptance of prescribed fire as a fuel control program.”
Though overall most survey respondents agreed that public land managers and forest professionals can be trusted to choose the best methods for dealing with fire, African- American and Hispanic agreement was lower. African-Americans and Hispanics were also less likely to support prescribed fire as a management tool, and were more concerned about fire effects—harm to wildlife, reduced scenic quality, and smoke—than whites. Females across all groups also tended to be more concerned about the effects of prescribed fire than males. In addition, although level of education had no effect on preference for prescribed fire in general, concern over side effects diminished as education increased.
“Though we found that concern over the side effects of prescribed fire diminished as education level increased, it doesn’t mean that more education leads to environmental knowledge,” cautions Bowker. “The whole correlation between education and environmental knowledge needs to be more carefully examined.”
One reason for differences among groups may have to do with ethnic environmental beliefs and backgrounds, an area that social environmental science has only started to explore. Another factor uncovered in the survey was local private forest land coverage. According to the survey data, as the presence of private forest land increases in the area a respondent lives in, so does distrust in the use of fire as a management tool. This result may indicate a lack of confidence in the expertise of private land owners or managers, distrust of state liability laws, or a lack of communication between residents and private land managers.
“Our statistical evidence suggests that ethnicity does matter when it comes to prescribed fire,” says Bowker. “To gain wide public support and trust, land managers and owners should be aware of these differences, and fuel control programs should be tailored with the concerns and preferences of the local community in mind.”