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Front Page » April 23, 2002 » Opinion » Local Residents Express Attitudes Toward Wilderness Study...
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Local Residents Express Attitudes Toward Wilderness Study Areas

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Wilderness? National Conservation Area? National Monument? Emery County is certainly involved in the growing worldwide trend to designate formal protected areas. In 1997 the World Conservation Union identified over 54 thousand protected areas worldwide. Along with this increase in formal protection has come numerous researchers such as myself who are interested in the social and biophysical interactions and impacts of protected areas. Considerable research has concluded that the effectiveness of protected areas relies to a great extent on involving the local human population in policy formation and management of these areas. This realization has led to numerous efforts to better understand local attitudes towards these protected areas.

A survey was conducted by the Brigham Young University Geography Department in late 2001 directed at understanding the attitudes of southeastern Utah residents towards public land in general and the establishment and management of Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) in particular. More than 600 residents in six counties returned surveys that asked respondents if they agreed, disagreed, or were neutral with 11separate statements concerning WSAs.

Five of the survey statements were essentially identical to those asked in a survey conducted by Gundars Rudzitis, the results of which are published in the book Wilderness and the Changing American West (1996). This survey, which did not include any Utah counties, found considerable support and positive attitudes towards Wilderness areas in eleven counties spread across several states.

Our recent survey of southeastern Utah residents did not find a similar level of support. For example, in Rudzitis' survey 53 percent of respondents agreed that the presence of nearby Wilderness areas was an important reason why they moved to or stayed in their county. Only 14 percent of residents in southeastern Utah (3 percent in Emery County) felt the same concerning WSAs. In addition, 66 percent of respondents in southeastern Utah (74 percent in Emery County) felt that WSAs should be opened for mineral or energy development compared to only 22 percent of the respondents in the counties sampled by Rudzitis.

Several possible reasons for the substantial difference in attitudes towards WSAs between these surveys stand out. The debate over wilderness designation has been particularly intense in Utah, with few opponents or supporters of wilderness being pleased with the Bureau of Land Management's initial wilderness review that established 3.2 million acres of WSAs in Utah. Only 12 percent of southeastern Utah respondents (7 percent in Emery County) felt that the process of establishing WSAs was fair, accurate, and appropriate, while 82 percent (92 percent in Emery County) believe that local citizens should have more influence in the designation and management of WSAs.

Population change is another possible explanatory factor. While population growth in the state of Utah during the 1990s (29.6 percent) was more than double the national average (13.1 percent), southeastern Utah grew at just slightly more (15.2 percent) than the national average, and at a level far below the extremely high growth counties sampled by Rudzitis. In fact, Grand County, the only county in our survey with a relatively high growth rate (28.2 percent), responded to the survey in a pattern more closely resembling Rudzitis survey than any of the other five counties. For example, while 74 percent of Emery County respondents agreed that WSAs should be opened for mineral and energy development, only 46 percent of Grand County respondents agreed with this statement. Emery County had the lowest population growth in southeastern Utah at only 5.1percent during the 1990s.

Overall the survey found a correlation between length of time in the county and attitudes towards WSAs, with residents who have lived in the counties for less than 10 years having more positive attitudes towards WSAs. 73 percent of survey respondents in southeastern Utah had lived in their county for over 10 years, with 57 percent having been residents for over 20 years.

In surveys across the globe negative attitudes towards protected areas have often been linked to complaints about the impact on economic livelihood activities such as grazing, wood collecting, and hunting. Livelihood opportunities were also a concern in our survey as 64 percent of respondents felt that WSAs hinder economic livelihood opportunities. The percentage was higher in Emery County (73 percent) and lower in Grand County (40 percent). In burgeoning tourist areas such as Moab the presence of WSAs may be viewed as providing economic opportunities, while regions dominated by agriculture and resource extraction are more concerned about increasing restrictions and regulations.

As with any survey, the survey of southeastern Utah paints only a partial picture of attitudes in each county, and some effect from self-selection of respondents is evident. For example, only 30 percent of respondents were female, and the survey analysis found the difference between female and male attitudes on most questions to be significant. Female respondents were more likely to either be neutral or positive towards WSA establishment and management. For example, 28 percent of women agreed that additional wilderness reviews should be conducted in order to find additional areas which may qualify as a WSA compared to only 13 percent of male respondents. And 40 percent of women agreed that WSA designation is an important management tool for protecting the natural environment compared to 27 percent of men.

The under-representation of women is indicative of a broader exclusion of women in the ongoing public lands debate. For example, in Emery County where public land issues are reaching a fevered pitch, there is not a single woman on the county commission nor on the 11 person public lands council. Recent public meetings being held to gather public comments on a potential National Monument designation have been dominated by male attendance and comments.

The debate over wilderness in southeastern Utah is often a polarizing issue, with many individuals expressing strong opinions. But like many issues there is a substantial number of people who either don't know much about it or are not concerned enough to express an opinion or be involved. While our survey response rate was good, more than 30 percent, many individuals did not return their questionnaires and a surprising number returned them blank with a note saying that they knew little about these issues. Those who did respond have high rates of activity on public land. Over 40 percent of respondents hunted or fished on public land during the past year, while over 50 percent spent time involved in either Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) use, hiking, camping, or sightseeing on public land.

Research on public attitudes towards protected areas has been conducted due to the belief that land managers need this information in order to better develop management objectives and plans. While it is clear that a substantial portion of southeastern Utah has negative feelings towards the designation and management of WSAs, these and surrounding areas are increasingly being utilized by people living outside the region. The challenge for public land managers in southeastern Utah is to mitigate impacts from these weekend hordes while better integrating local communities into decision making and management. A difficult recipe but one that has been found to be essential in successful conservation of environments that are being added to a world wide list of formal protected areas. (Durrant is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at Brigham Young University and may be contacted by email:

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April 23, 2002
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