Applied ecological research doesn’t occur in a social vacuum. We designed this research to address relevant on-the-ground concerns, meet the needs and concerns of a public interested in public land management, and to help managers make restoration decisions as cost-effective as possible.
In this study, we want to find out what factors influence the decisions that managers make after a fire on public lands. How do they make the decision between seeding native plants versus non-native plants? Do their choices depend on how long they have worked at their position? Does it matter to managers what they think stakeholders and neighbors prefer them to do? Essentially, we want to know how social, economic, and political environments affect managers’ decisions, and whether managers accurately perceive what the public and stakeholders want for these post-fire landscapes.
After looking at existing research and talking to managers who’ve made decisions in the past about areas affected by wildfires, we designed a survey in the spring of 2012. This survey was conducted over the phone with eight randomly selected managers in the Great Basin and Mojave Desert. The surveys were designed to allow them to answer open-ended questions that let the interview take it’s own natural course. In this way we hoped to identify the factors that were most important to managers in post-fire decision-making.
The results of these interviews allowed us to design a structured survey that will be sent out to a much larger sample of randomly selected managers in the Great Basin and Mojave Desert in the spring of 2013. In these surveys managers will select between pre-written choices, with the exception of one open-ended question that will address any concerns we may have missed.
Many structured surveys use a Likert scale to rank how important a factor like environmental health or federal law is to a decision. But we found that ranking the “importance” of factors doesn’t always reflect the actual decision-making environment a manager faces. Instead, in our survey we mainly use questions about trade-off decisions. For example, we present two locations and ask managers to choose which location they would assign higher priority. The majority of the structured survey addresses the social, economic, and political factors manager’s are faced with, as mentioned above. The last section of the survey addresses the actual ecological research results of our project so far. The intention of this final section is to help guide the relevancy of our future research.
A third, similar survey will be sent out to randomly selected landowners. Some of this survey will mirror the manager survey. To find out more about what aspects of post-fire restorations tend to be of concern, we are also reviewing stakeholder appeals to management decisions in NEPA documents.
Typically studies would end at this stage (semi-structured interviews followed by structured surveys). However, we have added a third stage which will add robustness to our overall survey design. This will be a “conjoint experiment” done at workshops and other events. Conjoint experiments were originally developed for marketing research to determine what aspects of products consumers valued (and were the most likely to pay for). In the context of this project, the “consumers” are land managers choosing between different “products” (native versus non-native seeds, or one area prioritized over another). Conjoint experiments allow researchers to model and observe the decision-making process more realistically than surveys. The drawback to this method is that the scenarios need to be replayed multiple times with slight variations in order to get reliable results. Conjoint surveys can become long and tiresome, leading to “survey fatigue.” To avoid this, we will narrow down the number of questions and options to those with the highest relevance based on the results from the structured surveys. By keeping the structured survey and the conjoint experiment separate, and administering them in different ways (internet and in-person), we can help diminish survey fatigue.