Public versus expert opinions regarding public involvement processes used in resource and wildlife management
Stephen E. Decker, Sustainable Resource Management Program, Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador, A2H 6P9, Canada. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Successful public involvement efforts can reduce conflict and build trust between resource managers and the public. Differences of opinion between the public and wildlife managers regarding the importance of various characteristics and methods of public involvement have implications for managers wishing to design effective public involvement processes. We compared and contrasted the preferences of German public and European experts in large mammal management regarding characteristics and methods of public involvement. Expert participants attributed high levels of importance to including scientific information in decision making while general public respondents attributed high levels of importance to the cost effectiveness and representativeness of the public involvement effort. Differences were also observed regarding public involvement methods. Experts preferred task forces and advisory groups while the general public preferred information materials and public meetings. We discuss the likely causes of similarities and differences between these two groups and examine the consequent implications for managers.
Public involvement, the applied aspect of human dimensions of wildlife management research, can help managers learn about the attitudes (e.g., beliefs and levels of support or opposition) and demographic characteristics of publics and interest groups associated with resource and wildlife-management efforts (Bath 1996). Such information is important to resource and wildlife managers as unfounded assumptions about the positions of the public and interest groups can result in unsupported decisions, which may contribute to public opposition to nature and wildlife-conservation efforts (Miller & McGee 2001). With accurate information about beliefs and attitudes, however, managers and interest groups who are willing can more effectively work toward common goals that may include consensus on a decision, the preparation of a mutually acceptable management plan, or greater knowledge concerning the matter in question.
The conflicts surrounding such collaborative efforts often present formidable challenges for resource and wildlife managers (Lawrence & Deagen 2001; McCool & Guthrie 2001; Nie 2004). Such difficulties can be seen all over the world wherever attempts are made to alter land use patterns or to influence public opinions or management priorities in the name of resource or wildlife conservation (see Schröder 1998; Bath & Farmer 2000; Andersone & Ozolins 2002; Bath & Enck 2003). These conflicts can take a number of forms that are generally identified as either cognitive (e.g., different beliefs regarding what may or may not be true), value (e.g., differences regarding the importance of the issue in question when compared with other issues facing respondents or the region in general), cost/benefit (e.g., differences of opinion regarding who will pay for, or benefit from, the effort in question), or behavioral conflicts (e.g., issues regarding mistrust or questionable credibility of individuals or groups involved in the effort) (Mitchell 1989; Bath 2000; Bath & Majić 2001). Many resource and endangered species management efforts struggle and sometimes fail under the weight of public opposition (Bath 2000; Lawrence & Deagen 2001; Dearden 2002; Brown & Harris 2005). Therefore, the need to involve successfully the public in decision making, gain a greater understanding of the nature of conflicts, and thereby reduce the severity and frequency of these conflicts is obvious.
A number of authors have suggested that successful public involvement efforts can reduce conflict, build trust, and credibility between managers and the public (Bath & Enck 2003), and forestall litigation by those who wish their voice to be heard (The Regional Environmental Center For Central and Eastern Europe 1998; Lawrence & Deagen 2001). To ensure that their voices are heard, members of the public and interest groups increasingly seek participation in resource and wildlife management decisions (Bath 1996; McCool & Guthrie 2001; Chase et al. 2002; Chase et al. 2004). Consequently, the importance of well designed, and thus effective, public involvement processes continues to increase.
Successful resource and wildlife management decisions must be informed by the opinions of both the affected general public and experts (Riley et al. 2003; Hunsberger et al. 2005). It follows that acceptable and effective public involvement processes should address the preferences of members of the public and experts with experience in public involvement efforts. Information concerning public and expert preferences for particular characteristics and methods of public involvement processes has implications for managers seeking an effective decision-making procedure (Chase et al. 2004).
Though public and expert preferences for various characteristics and methods of public involvement have been addressed by other researchers (Tuler & Webler 1999; Mortenson & Krannich 2001; Chase et al. 2004), there are calls to compare public and expert preferences to help offer advice for designing acceptable and effective public involvement processes (see Tuler & Webler 1999; Mortenson & Krannich 2001; McCool & Guthrie 2001). The current study helps respond to this research need by exploring differences in preferences between a small group of German public respondents and relevant experts regarding selected characteristics (Table 1) and methods (Table 2) of public involvement.
Table 1. Characteristics of public involvement processes
|Cost effective||Uses scientific information|
|Promotes communication||Is long terma|
|Represents the entire regionb||Weighs input|
|Treats all citizens fairly||Input has a genuine influence|
Table 2. Methods of public involvement
|Public meetingsb||Advisory groupsa|
|Task forces||Closed meetings with experts|
|Unsolicited materials|| |
Expert opinions regarding various aspects of public involvement processes used in nature and wildlife-conservation efforts were gathered from network members of the Large Herbivore Foundation (LHF). Based in the Netherlands, the LHF is a nongovernmental organization that works throughout Europe to establish and provide expert advice on large herbivore restoration and management efforts and associated nature conservation projects. The LHF's network members were chosen as the expert sample population for this study as their experience with managing nature conservation efforts “on the ground” has allowed them to become familiar with various characteristics and methods of public involvement. A small segment of the German public was chosen as the sample population from which public opinions were measured as it is this scale that organizations such as the LHF work at to implement nature conservation efforts. Further, it is these local publics that nature conservation managers hope to engage in their public involvement processes. Finally, it is local peoples who must invest their time and take an interest in decision-making processes if local nature conservation efforts are to be informed by local opinion.
This study was carried out in conjunction with human dimensions research into a proposed restoration of free-ranging European bison (Bison bonasus) in the southeastern corner of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in west-central Germany (Figure 1). The study area is centered on a 7.2-km2 section of the 1,355 km2 Rothaargebirge, or Red Hair Mountains, Nature Park. It is in this area that restoration proponents plan to release 10–15 bison and, eventually, maintain a small family-sized herd of between 20 and 25 animals (Taurus Naturentwicklung e.V. 2006).
As this admittedly small herd size falls well below the minimal viable population levels proposed by some researchers (Traill et al. 2010), it is important to note that there are only approximately 3,000 European bison alive today. Some biologists promote the restoration of free-ranging bison herds to areas within their former range to provide a reservoir of genetic material in the event of a catastrophic loss of individuals from other populations, to restore ecosystem functions of large herbivores in natural landscapes, and to help diversify the gene pool (Kleiman 1989; Balčiauskas 1999; Pucek et al. 2004).
Approximately 25,000 people live on the fringes of the Rothaargebirge area (Landesamt für Datenverarbeitung und Statistik 2005) (Figure 1). The study area spans the administrative regions of Seigen-Wittgenstein and Hochsauerlandkreis (HSK). These regions are adjacent to one another and share a number of characteristics including similar populations (227,219 in HSK vs. 291,372 in Siegen-Wittgenstein), unemployment rates (11.9% in HSK vs. 11.0% in Siegen-Wittgenstein), average household incomes (€18,531 in HSK vs. €18,297 in Siegen-Wittgenstein), numbers of residents with a professional education (122,000 in HSK vs. 128,000 in Siegen-Wittgenstein), and numbers of residents collecting pension benefits (59,000 in HSK vs. 57,000 in Siegen-Wittgenstein) (Landesamt für Datenverarbeitung und Statistik 2005).
Both regions also share a lack of experience concerning this type of wildlife management effort. The current effort to restore free-ranging bison is the first of its kind in Germany and one of only a handful throughout Europe. To make residents more aware of the proposed restoration, proponents have held public meetings, information and photo exhibitions, and published numerous newspaper articles in the regions affected.
Selecting characteristics and methods
Though Decker et al. (2010) found differences between the regions of HSK and Siegen-Wittgenstein regarding attitudes toward the proposed restoration of free-ranging bison in the area; only slight differences were recorded between regions regarding preferences for selected characteristics (Table 1) and methods (Table 2) of public involvement. Responses from these regions were therefore grouped together in the current study and compared with those from European experts with experience in public involvement efforts associated with nature and wildlife conservation.
Although researchers have used a variety of approaches to help identify which characteristics are important to a successful public involvement processes, several characteristics surface consistently regardless of the approach employed (Table 3). Chase et al. (2004) used factor loadings to condense an assortment of 19 features into several main factors. As this condensed list of factors coincided well with those characteristics commonly identified in the literature they were adopted for use in the current study (Table 1). Study participants were asked to indicate the relative importance of each factor in a hypothetical decision-making process. Similarly, the assortment of public involvement methods adopted for this study (Table 2) was generated from relevant literature sources, including the similar study by Chase et al. (2004), and from local study collaborators with knowledge regarding which methods of public involvement were the most well known and commonly employed in the study area.
Public preferences for public involvement characteristics and methods were assessed through structured interviews (n= 246) conducted between May and July of 2006. Participants were randomly sampled, proportional to population, from a population of approximately 25,000 residents living in the towns and villages bordering the proposed bison restoration area.
The interview method of data collection targeted residents 18 years of age or older, living in the 17 towns and villages bordering the proposed restoration area. As mentioned, this study was conducted in conjunction with human dimension research pertaining to a proposed bison restoration in the area. Interviews were thus conducted only at randomly chosen, odd numbered houses or apartments to prevent double sampling of residents who may have participated in the other aspect of the study that involved the distribution of self-administered questionnaires to even numbered residences. Random residences were chosen using large-scale village maps overlain with a grid system. Unfortunately, due to time and financial constraints, no interviews were conducted in three of the towns in the study area. The populations of these three towns together comprised 4.9% of the total population of the study area. To allow the reader to put these proportions into perspective, the percentage of people living in the towns in the study area relative to the population of the entire study area ranged from a low of 0.04% up to 28% in the largest town of Bad Berleburg. Data collected using self-administered questionnaires suggest that the views of residents in the three unsampled towns are similar to those of other residents in the same administrative region.
Interviews conducted in the remaining 14 eligible towns in the study area resulted in a sample size of 246 with 125 respondents from the region of Siegen-Wittgenstein and 121 respondents from the region of HSK. Though researchers did not collect data regarding interview refusal rates, anecdotal comments by interviewers suggest that interview refusal rates tended to be higher in the region of HSK than in the region of Siegen-Wittgenstein.
Interviewers presented participants with eight characteristics of public involvement (Table 4) and recorded their responses along a five-point response scale that ranged from 1—“not at all important” to 5—“very important.” Respondents were also asked their opinions regarding seven methods commonly associated with public involvement processes (Table 5). The response scale for these items ranged from 1—“least preferred” to 5—“most preferred.”
Table 4. Public and expert preferences for characteristics of public involvement
|Cost effective||1||4.30||7.5||3.47||t (256) = 5.109, P < 0.001*|
|Promotes communication||2||4.19||2||4.31||t (257) =−0.776, P= 0.438|
|Represents the entire region||3||4.15||7.5||3.47||t (53.7) = 3.709, P < 0.001*|
|Treats all citizens fairly||4||4.12||3||3.90||t (257) = 1.058, P= 0.291|
|Uses scientific information||5||3.88||1||4.33||t (78) =−3.181, P= 0.002*|
|Is long term||6||3.82||4.5||3.81||t (256) = 0.076, P= 0.939|
|Input has a genuine influence||7||3.77||4.5||3.81||t (72.8) =−0.238, P= 0.812|
|Weighs input||8||3.50||6||3.74||t (85.7) =−1.680, P= 0.097|
Table 5. Public and expert preferences for methods of public involvement
|Information materials||1||4.22||4||3.86||t (268) = 2.379, P= 0.018|
|Public meetings||2||3.84||3||4.11||t (264) =−1.710, P= 0.088|
|Task forces||3||3.63||1||4.28||t (72.8) =−4.046, P < 0.001*|
|Unsolicited materials||4||3.55||7||2.77||t (266) = 4.270, P < 0.001*|
|Advisory groups||5||3.50||2||4.27||t (77.3) =−4.866, P < 0.001*|
|Questionnaire||6||3.33||6||3.20||t (71.8) = 0.793, P= 0.430|
|Closed meetings with experts||7||2.62||5||3.43||t (263) =−3.906, P < 0.001*|
The final population sampled consisted of European experts with experience in public involvement in large mammal management issues. Self-administered questionnaires were distributed by e-mail to network members of the LHF, a Europe-wide nongovernmental organization focused on providing expert advice on large herbivore restoration and management issues. Experts were presented with the same questions as were presented to German public participants. Forty-four experts from 22 European countries made up of mainly the core group of the LHF participated in this aspect of the study. Unfortunately factors such as inactive e-mail addresses, incorrect e-mail addresses, and automatic e-mail replies (e.g., out of office, change of position, etc.) made determining an accurate response rate difficult.
Independent samples t-tests were used to compare mean preferences of public and expert respondents for the various public involvement methods and characteristics presented. As conducting a series of t-test can increase the possibility of type 1 error, a Bonferroni (family-wise) adjustment (i.e., alpha value divided by the number of tests) was employed to adjust the significance level of each test to reduce the chance of type 1 error (Cordell et al. 2002; Quinn & Keough 2002). As mean preferences for each group were compared across five variables for methods of public involvement and also compared across five variables for characteristics of public involvement, the original significance level of 0.05 was reduced to 0.01 to reflect the Bonferroni adjustment and thus reduce the chance of type 1 error.
Levene's test was used to test for equality of variance between the two groups sampled. Where equal variances could not be assumed an adjustment for the associated degrees of freedom was performed. This adjustment resulted in some degrees of freedom being presented as decimal numbers.
Characteristics of public involvement processes
Public respondents attributed high importance to the cost effectiveness of the public involvement process and also tended to favor characteristics pertaining to more democratic and open decision making over characteristics associated with the duration of the process or weighing input (i.e., assigning greater importance to the views of certain interest groups or individuals) (Table 4). Expert respondents ranked the inclusion of scientific information in the decision-making process as most important and also attributed high importance to those characteristics of public involvement pertaining to promoting communication and treating all citizens fairly. Experts attributed considerably less importance to characteristics such as regional representation and the cost effectiveness of the decision-making process (Table 4).
It is interesting to note that only 34.1% of experts felt that their opinions concerning the importance of various characteristics of public involvement would coincide with the opinions of the public. It is not surprising therefore, that differences were recorded between the preferences of experts and the general public. Experts attributed greater importance to including scientific information in decision making than did general public respondents (t78=−3.181, P < 0.002; Table 4). Conversely, general public respondents attributed greater importance to characteristics pertaining to cost effectiveness (t256= 5.109, P < 0.001) and representing the entire region (t53= 3.709, P < 0.001) than did experts (Table 4).
General public and expert respondents attributed similar importance to some characteristics of public involvement. We found no evidence for a difference between preferences of the general public and experts regarding the public involvement factor pertaining to promoting communication (t257=−0.776, P= 0.438), which was ranked as the second-most important factor by both public and expert respondents (Table 4). Both public and expert respondents attributed little importance to the factor pertaining to weighing input (i.e., assigning greater importance to the views of certain interest groups or individuals) and consequently there was no difference in mean preferences between the two groups (t85.7=−1.680, P= 0.97; Table 4).
Methods of public involvement
Differences were also recorded between public and expert preferences for different public involvement methods. Public respondents ranked information materials and public meetings as their first- and second-most preferable methods of public involvement, respectively (Table 5). Questionnaires and closed meetings with experts were deemed second-least and least-preferable methods of public involvement respectively by public respondents (Table 5). Expert respondents identified task forces as their most preferred method of public involvement and the similar method of advisory groups as their second-most preferable method (Table 5). Unsolicited materials (i.e., unsolicited letters from the public) and questionnaires were ranked as the least and second-least preferable methods of public involvement by expert respondents (Table 5).
Similar to results regarding characteristics of public involvement, almost 60% of expert respondents admitted that their preferences for various public involvement methods would likely differ from those of the public. Correspondingly, we found differences between public and expert rankings of methods of public involvement (Table 5). Though not considered significant under Bonferroni's adjustment, general public respondents indicated higher levels of preference for information materials (t268= 2.379, P= 0.018) than did experts. Similarly, unsolicited comments were more preferred by general public respondents than experts (t266= 4.270, P < 0.001). Conversely, experts attributed higher preference to task forces (t72.813=−4.046, P < 0.001), closed meetings with experts (t263=−3.906, P < 0.001), and advisory groups (t77.293=−4.866, P < 0.001) than did general public respondents (Table 5).
When asked to identify the most effective method of public involvement, more than 60% of experts identified task forces, advisory groups, or some combination thereof, as methods most likely to contribute to a successful citizen involvement process. In contrast, less than one quarter of public respondents (24.2% and 20.6%, respectively) identified task forces or advisory groups as their most preferred method of public involvement.
Though similar studies have identified the inclusion of scientific information and the ability of participants to influence genuinely decisions as important to a successful decision-making process (Tuler & Webler 1999; Chase et al. 2002; Chase et al. 2004), participants in our study attributed little importance to these characteristics. After cost effectiveness, public respondents tended to favor characteristics that are generally associated with democratic and open decision making. As members of the public and interest groups associated with resource and wildlife management situations increasingly seek participation in decision-making processes (Bath 1996; McCool & Guthrie 2001; Chase et al. 2002; Chase et al. 2004), public preferences for such characteristics are not unexpected. Public preferences for methods of public involvement such as information materials and public meetings, which are generally thought to involve only one-way flows of information from managers to the public (Arnstein 1969) were, however, unexpected.
Faced with similar discrepancies between participants’ preferred public involvement characteristics and preferred public involvement methods, Chase et al. (2004) presented several possible explanations which, among others, included: participants’ failure to understand the actual characteristics of public involvement methods, participants using hidden criteria to evaluate public involvement methods, and respondents failing to consider the tradeoffs associated with certain public involvement methods. Participants in our study were admittedly given little information regarding the details of what various characteristics and methods of public involvement might entail. We contend, however, that such discrepancies may in fact be due to respondents failing to separate their overall preferences for characteristics and methods of public involvement from their desire to see various characteristics and methods of public involvement used in the particular wildlife management situation in question. Unlike participants in the study by Chase et al. (2004), participants in our study had a complete lack of experience with the wildlife management issue in question. Thus, while German public respondents may generally prefer more representative forms of public involvement, their desire for information concerning the novel proposal to restore free-ranging bison in Germany may prompt them to attribute greater importance to information materials and public meetings as such methods are more likely to provide greater information to the public. Study participants from other contexts on the other hand, with greater experience with the wildlife management issue in question, may be less likely to seek public involvement characteristics and methods that provide information and, as in the study by Chase et al. (2004), prefer characteristics relating to the effectiveness of the process.
European expert respondents in our study identified task forces and/or advisory groups as their most preferred methods of public involvement. A similar study of wildlife managers in Utah, however, revealed systematic surveys as the preferred public involvement method (Mortenson & Krannich 2001). This difference may be due to the fact that instances of human dimensions of nature conservation and wildlife research are notably rare in Europe when compared with North America (Stoll-Kleemann 2001).
Many European experts admitted that their preferences regarding characteristics and methods of public involvement would likely differ from public preferences. Discrepancies between expert and public preferences suggest that in the absence of information regarding public opinions, managers will not likely be successful in designing a public involvement process that is acceptable to the public. Thus, similar to suggestions by Treves et al. (2006) in their review of human-wildlife conflict management, managers would be wise to actively assess public preferences and opinions before attempting to move forward with their management efforts. Lauber & Knuth (1999) have also called attention to the importance of understanding public sentiment regarding various features of public involvement and suggest that the extent to which a decision-making process is tailored to those characteristics most preferred by members of the public has an impact on the willingness of the public to accept resulting decisions. This assertion echoes Lejano et al. (2007) who suggest that contextualization (i.e., coherence with local institutions and social structures) is essential for successful resource conservation efforts.
Conclusions and implications
In the absence of comprehensive guidelines for designing effective public involvement procedures (Abelson et al. 2003), decision-making processes must not only be informed by public knowledge and preferences (Lawrence & Deagen 2001; McCool & Guthrie 2001; Chase et al. 2004), but must also incorporate those methods deemed most effective by experts. For example, as more than 60% of experts identified task forces and advisory groups as the most effective methods of public involvement, managers would be wise to employ these methods while, at the same time, incorporating those characteristics deemed important by the public. For participants in the current study, this means promoting the cost effectiveness and democratic merits of the methods chosen while avoiding less popular characteristics such as weighing input.
Given the complexity of public preferences and contextual considerations (Treves et al. 2006), attempting to outline a single, specific public involvement process that is successful in all nature or wildlife management situations has been considered difficult by some researchers and unrealistic and naïve by others (McCool & Guthrie 2001; Chase et al. 2002; Chase et al. 2004). Some characteristics of public involvement, however, such as treating citizens fairly and promoting communication between interest groups, were considered moderately important by both public and expert respondents in the current study and by participants in similar studies conducted in other contexts (see Lauber & Knuth 1999; Tuler & Webler 1999; Chase et al. 2002). These features may therefore be cautiously identified as the context-independent characteristics that may contribute to an effective decision-making process in any situation.
As suggested by Landre & Knuth (1993), “…understanding contextual factors that inhibit or enhance public involvement programs can help professionals design programs to enable effective community participation.” Thus, by examining public and expert preferences for characteristics and methods of public involvement in various contexts, managers can gain a greater understanding of the importance of context in public involvement preferences. By implementing a public involvement process attuned to the preferences of the public, managers will likely gain credibility and trust, thereby fostering good public relations and cooperation with the public in the future.
We thank German public and European expert respondents for participating in our study. We thank R. Klauser from the University of Siegen, Germany for his assistance in the design of interview questions. We acknowledge the invaluable work of local research assistants in helping to conduct many of the interviews. Funded by Memorial University, the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, the LHF, and Taurus Naturentwicklung e.V.