May 17, 2016
Science Tuesday: Don’t Believe Everything You Think!
Type: Research Synthesis
If I asked you what the primary barrier to the increased use of fire is, what would you say? Each week in April, I found myself giving a presentation or leading a discussion on this very topic, and every time, the first response from the audience was always the same: “the public!” This same response came from a student fire ecology club at a local university, a classroom full of Forest Service and National Park Service employees during an RX-310 course, and a room full of FAC Net and FLN members at our recent annual meeting in Florida.
Now I have to admit: in a couple of those cases, I was actually hoping that the audience would respond that way, because—when paired with social science findings on this topic—that response is the perfect set up for a conversation about the power of perception. And I’m not talking about public perception; I’m talking about the perception of public perception!
My initial interest in this topic came in graduate school, when I did a study on impediments to prescribed fire in northern California. For my research, I surveyed fire managers with every agency and organization that uses prescribed fire in the region, and I asked them to rate a list of impediments. I was sure that public opinion would rank high—conventional wisdom tells us that the public is a major limiting factor for prescribed fire. But guess what? Public opinion ranked 10th out of the 14 impediments included on my survey, with an average rating of 4.6 (scale of 1-10, with 1 being “not limiting” and 10 being “extremely limiting”). Operational and regulatory constraints were consistently identified as the most limiting factors for prescribed fire managers.
Now this came as a surprise to me at the time, but it’s actually well corroborated by the literature on the topic. Fire social scientists have been looking at public opinion for decades, and they’ve demonstrated a steady increase in public support for prescribed fire and other fuels management activities. In a 2012 General Technical Report that synthesized social science findings around fire, McCaffrey and Olson showed that in almost every study that’s been conducted in recent years, more than 80 percent of respondents were accepting of prescribed fire and/or mechanical thinning. The studies covered at least 15 different areas in the West and Midwest, but demonstrated impressively consistent support for those activities across different geographies. Now we all know that public support can be complicated—tied to trust and local relationships, past experiences with prescribed fire and wildfire, etc.—but overall, social science tells us that the public has a favorable opinion of prescribed fire and other related management activities.
So if the public’s not the problem, what’s holding us up? Steelman and McCaffrey published a paper in 2011 that I find useful in thinking about these issues. For that study, they traveled to two big wildfires in the summer of 2008, and they interviewed fire managers and community members to understand the factors that were shaping and limiting the ways that the fires were managed. They found that internal factors, including procedural and planning requirements as well as agency beliefs and attitudes, were just as important as external factors like political and community pressure. The paper reminds us that public views “are not monolithic and can be changed,” and that “agency attitudes are also malleable.” Importantly, it also points out that fire managers’ own perceptions of public perception can be limiting—such an important lesson (and the inspiration for the title of this blog!).
To truly understand what’s limiting us, we need to look inward at our own personal perceptions as well as the agency/organizational cultures within which we’re operating. There’s no better example of this than the controversy around the North et al. paper that was published last year in the journal Science. In that paper, titled “Reform forest fire management: agency disincentives undermine policy effectiveness,” the authors argue that USDA Forest Service (USFS) policy supports more flexible fire management now than ever before, but management has changed little over the years because of entrenched disincentives in the way that risk, public outreach and funding are handled by the agency. The paper calls for increased public pressure as a means to shift agency culture—an interesting twist from the dominant discourse, wherein the fire community is focused on shifting public perception.
When I was talking with the fire ecology club and the RX-310 group last month, I highlighted these same examples and urged everyone to question their assumptions about the factors that limit their work. It’s easy to scapegoat the public, but not always as easy to reflect on our own attitudes and beliefs, over which we inherently have more autonomy and power. And maybe I’m superstitious, but I tend to think of the public perception “problem” as a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more we tell people they don’t like fire, the more they will believe it. Let’s start telling them they love it!
Quinn-Davidson, L.N. and Varner, J.M., 2012. Impediments to prescribed fire across agency, landscape and manager: an example from northern California. International Journal of Wildland Fire, 21(3): 210-218.
McCaffrey, S.M. and Olsen, C.S., 2012. Research perspectives on the public and fire management: a synthesis of current social science on eight essential questions. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-104. Newtown Square, PA: USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 40 p.
Steelman, T.A. and McCaffrey, S.M., 2011. What is limiting more flexible fire management—public or agency pressure? Journal of Forestry, 109(8): 454-461.
North, M. P., Stephens, S. L., Collins, B. M., Agee, J. K., Aplet, G., Franklin, J. F., and P. Z. Fule. 2015. Reform forest fire management: Agency disincentives undermine policy effectiveness. Science, 349(6254): 1280-1281.
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