Understanding Public Perceptions of Post-Wildfire Landscape Recovery Public Deposited



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  • Forest disturbances, such as wildfires, pine beetle outbreaks, and floods are important features of many landscapes and ecosystems. Many disturbances are increasing in size, frequency, and intensity due to changing climates and land management decisions. The changing ecological and aesthetic conditions following a disturbance can lead to negative short- and long-term social impacts. This dissertation research examines one aspect of the relationship between people and their environment in the context of forest disturbances and landscape changes. Specifically, it explores how people perceive a changing landscape after a forest disturbance, a trajectory referred to here as landscape recovery. After describing the larger context of forest disturbances in the introductory chapter, with a focus on wildfires, my second dissertation chapter developed a conceptual framework for understanding how people perceive post-disturbance landscape recovery. It examined the social factors that are most likely to influence those perceptions based on literature from various disciplines. These factors included visual cues and aesthetic preferences, landscape values and connections, and beliefs about the ecological role of disturbances. I described how the concepts and methodological approaches from mental models and social representations traditions help depict and explain how perceptions of landscape recovery can be studied in a way that explores the process shaping the perceptions. I explained how these perceptions likely exist along a spectrum from more simple perceptions focused on aesthetic judgments to more complex perceptions based more on ecological knowledge. I then proposed a research agenda to further investigate this framework, along with a summary of management considerations. The third chapter empirically explored the framework from the previous chapter by applying social representations theory (SRT) to qualitative research in Montana about how people perceive post-wildfire landscape recovery. I examined the mechanistic (i.e., anchoring and objectification) and structural (i.e., central core and peripheral elements) aspects of representations by integrating the factors proposed earlier as most influential in affecting perceptions of recovery. Interviews were conducted in 2014 with 30 residents who experienced the 2012 Dahl Fire, near Roundup, MT. Participants were purposively selected to represent a range of the factors described in Chapter 2. The main propositions from Chapter 2 were explored in the data collection and analysis steps. The core of all respondents' representations was centered on the concept of "Mother Nature." The factors identified in Chapter 2 further shaped representations uniquely across the two main groups of residents (rural lifestyle and working landscape residents) through the anchoring and objectification processes. People's representations about recovery were anchored in general beliefs about the past ecological and socio-cultural role of fire in the landscape as influenced by their past experiences and knowledge about ecological disturbances. Interpretations of different aspects of the landscape, including vegetation composition and key ecosystem functions, were filtered through people's values for the landscape and their specific beliefs about how the fire affected the landscape. This led to variation in specific notions of what constitutes a recovered landscape across the two main social groups there. These findings are discussed in the context of SRT and post-wildfire management. My fourth chapter took a broader look at the variables that influence perceptions of landscape recovery across different wildfires. Twenty-five fires that occurred in 2011 or 2012 in WA, OR, MT, and ID were selected to represent a range of fire behavior characteristics and landscape impacts. Then, residents who live near each of the 25 fires were randomly selected to receive survey questionnaires which asked about multiple facets of their experiences with the fire, the perceived social impacts from the fire, and specifically how the landscape had changed/recovered since the fire. Results showed that, overall, perceptions of landscape recovery no more than two years after the fire were positive. Regression analysis suggested that perceptions of recovery can be explained fairly well with several key variables. More negative evaluations of recovery were related to negative impacts to people's attachment to the landscape, negative perceptions of erosion problems, and longer lasting fires. More positive evaluations of recovery were related to more positive beliefs about the beneficial role of fire in terms of landscape health. Hierarchical Linear Modelling (HLM) analysis showed that these relationships were mostly consistent across fires, though there was some variability in the relationships between perceptions of landscape recovery and the variables that measured perceptions of erosion and beliefs about the ecological role of fire. These findings are discussed in terms of the scope of the study as well as their management implications. My fifth and concluding chapter summarized the main findings from each chapter and integrated them into a larger social-ecological context. Key limitations, considerations related to the validity and reliability of my research, and future research needs are discussed. My dissertation furthers the conceptual and empirical understanding of how people perceive landscape changes from natural disturbances and how managers can include these social dimensions into future planning and implementation efforts.
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