- Forests face health threats from pests and diseases (e.g., mountain pine beetle, emerald ash borer, chestnut blight [CB], Swiss needle cast), and other issues such as climate change. Interventions such as genetic engineering (GE) have shown promise for mitigating some of these threats. CB, for example, has impacted most American chestnut (AC) forests in the eastern United States (US), but scientists have recently discovered a gene from bread wheat (oxalate oxidase [OxO]) that increases resistance to CB, and they are currently seeking regulatory approval for commercial release of this transgenic AC tree. This dissertation examined societal (i.e., public, forest interest groups [FIG]) perceptions of using GE for mitigating CB and restoring AC trees. Three standalone articles assessed: (a) cognitive and socio-demographic drivers of attitudes toward this use of GE (Chapter 2); (b) the extent that normative acceptance of this use of GE is related to perceptions of risks and benefits (toward humans and the environment), and trust in those charged with managing this application of GE (Chapter 3); and (c) whether these attitudes and norms are susceptible to change after being exposed to persuasive messages that utilize different wording or framing effects (Chapter 4). Chapter 2 involved multiple regression analyses of data from a mixed-mode (online, mail) survey of residents living in US counties that historically experienced CB, residents in all other contiguous US counties (i.e., those not known
to have been affected by chestnut blight), and FIGs (from academic institutions, government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, private forest companies) to examine cognitive and sociodemographic drivers of their attitudes toward this use of GE. Chapter 3 used these same samples and structural equation modeling to examine specific relationships among trust in managing agencies, perceptions of risks and benefits, and normative acceptance of this use of GE. Chapter 4 used data from two samples (the same samples of residents in Chapters 2 and 3 plus a separate online Qualtrics panel of other residents) coupled with an experimental design to assess the extent that six different wording and framing treatments influenced these attitudes and norms. Although each chapter discusses a variety of results, implications, and conclusions, the primary results across these three chapters taken together showed that: (a) there was majority support (i.e., positive attitudes, normative acceptance) for using GE to mitigate CB and restore AC trees, with slightly greater support among the FIGs; (b) perceived environmental benefits and risks were most strongly related to this support; and (c) although these cognitions were generally positive, they were extremely susceptible to negative messaging and wording effects aimed at persuading people to change their opinions. These results advance scientific understanding of societal responses to using GE in forests in general and forest conservation in particular. The findings can also assist scientists and managers, especially when communicating with people about this complex issue.