Researchers from three universities conducting study about how people perceive risks from beetle-killed forests | PostIndependent.com

Researchers from three universities conducting study about how people perceive risks from beetle-killed forests

Deepan Dutta
ddutta@summitdaily.com

In Summit County, it's hard to miss the forest for the trees when half the trees are dead. The mountain pine beetle outbreak devastated pine forests in the High Country and across North America the past couple of decades, with ashen-grey blight running through forests all over North and Central Colorado.

Back in 2007, a study was done in nine communities — Breckenridge, Dillon, Frisco, Silverthorne, Granby, Kremmling, Steamboat Springs, Vail and Walden — to explore resident's perceptions of the forest, attitudes toward forest management and changes in behavior influenced by the beetle outbreak.

Eleven years later, researchers from the University of Colorado, University of Missouri and Utah State University are conducting a new study in those same communities to find out how perceptions have changed as the effects of the outbreak revealed themselves over time.

The study's findings may be used to understand better how humans perceive risk over time when it comes to the beetle outbreak and insect-related forest disturbances. The analysis may influence policy-making on forest management and messaging for wildfire mitigation.

The research is led by co-principal investigators Dr. Hannah Brenkert-Smith from the University of Colorado and Dr. Hua Qin from the University of Missouri.

There are several components to the current study, including a survey that was mailed to over 4,000 households, including many in Summit, over the past few weeks asking a litany of questions about how individuals perceive risks associated with beetle-killed forest and attitudes toward forest management, and whether those perceptions have changed over time.

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There is also a qualitative component involving interviews that will inform the survey results with local context and flavor. Surveys are helpful, but without conversations with locals, it can be hard to understand the reasoning behind the results.

Jamie Vickery, a post-doctoral research associate in the Environment & Society program at CU's Institute of Behavioral Science, is conducting the qualitative research. Vickery said the research will build off a foundation introduced with the 2007 study.

"The 2007 study was trying to get a baseline of people's risk perceptions due to the beetle outbreak," Vickery said. "2007 was around the height of the outbreak, with pine trees turning red as they were actively dying. It was a timely study that captured people's perceptions and what actions they were taking in response to the outbreak."

Vickery said that the new study is trying to assess if and how community perceptions have evolved over the past decade as those red dead pine trees shed their needles and now stand as spindly, ashen-grey skeletons on the mountainsides.

"We're very interested in understanding how those perceptions change over time, as well as how communities have responded, how it may have affected relationships between residents and their government agencies, as well as people's perceptions of forest management," Vickery said.

Vickery said that the study is also trying to understand how much people relate to their environments, and how the state of the local environment can affect local opinion and decision-making. For that reason, Vickery is especially interested in interviewing anyone involved in forest management, public officials, first responders and others who are actively involved in issues stemming from the outbreak, such as wildfire.

An Oklahoma native who trained at CU's Natural Hazards Center, Vickery is familiar with how communities respond to natural disturbances. The information gleaned from the study may reveal how different communities perceive forest management practices, such as wildfire mitigation.

"Context is critical," Vickery said. "Tree thinning and mitigation may be acceptable in one community, but another community might be up in arms. Different areas may respond differently to the same disturbance."

Vickery said that the research team hopes to gather the surveys and analyze them by this fall. After completing their analysis, the team will be conducting community forums in 2019 to share their findings and gather more input from the public.