Despite the popularization of the environmental discourse, rural environmental belief-systems should not be viewed as homogenous. Focusing on the largest protected area in Greece, we examined heterogeneity in local environmental views. Local spokespersons elicited word associations to two stimulus terms, namely, ‘environmentalists’ and ‘protected area’. Based on association categories for both terms, we identified two sample segments. ‘Naturalists’ appealed to a naturalistic image, which shaped the core compartment of their representations. On the other hand, ‘skeptics’ provided both environmentalist claims and critical accounts. Our findings revealed that the environmental discourse was widely diffused among local spokespersons. Issues of power and participation in decision-making processes within protected areas are discussed. For instance, dimensions of power and legitimacy were reflected in the frequency of association categories and their allocation among sample segments. Specifically, environmentalist accounts were overtly expressed by both ‘naturalists’ and skeptics, while a more socially, politically and critically inclined view was revealed by a small percentage of associations that were all elicited by ‘skeptics’. We conclude that appreciating the heterogeneity of rural environmental views can reinforce the democratic mandate in environmental policy-making. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.