Perceptions of naturalness in rivers

DSC01736Loosely connected to my ongoing series of posts about river restoration I thought I would review a few scientific papers that I think are some of the most illuminating on the relationship between humans and rivers.

The two key papers are written by Professor Anne Chin from University of Colorado in the US, she is a fluvial geomorphologist, but conducted experiments into people’s perceptions of wood in rivers, perhaps traditionally a more social science type investigation. If you want to look them up the two summary references are at the bottom of this post.

Perceptions of naturalness

In their literature review the authors report that although the scientific/academic community is largely positive with respect to the role wood can play in rivers and particularly in the use of wood in restoration, the public don’t fully understand or accept wood in rivers. They report on a 2009 study which showed the public thought forests with less downed wood were more aesthetically pleasing (1). A couple of previous studies (2, 3) and the two reviewed here showed a selection of photographs of rivers to members of the public and their responses showed a traditional and fairly negative attitude to wood in rivers.


Some of the photographs used in the study from the wiley-blackwell website.

Most people, including natural science undergraduate students felt that rivers with little or no wood were more aesthetically pleasing (e.g. d & e above) and that those rivers with wood were more dangerous and more in need of improvement e.g. dredging and/or removal of wood (e.g. a & c above).

River managers’ perceptions

In the recent 2012 paper Chin and her colleagues conducted the experiment with river managers in the US and found they rated rivers with wood as more natural, more aesthetically pleasing, less dangerous and less in need of improvements than those without wood (following the general scientific opinion). Interestingly when compared to previous student surveys the views of these managers tended to run counter to the views of the students in the same geographical locations, i.e. they had the opposite views to the people on the sort of courses they themselves would have studied in order to become river managers. Perhaps most interestingly when they analysed these results they picked up on a trend that river managers became more favourable towards wood in rivers the longer they had been in the position.

In short the public at large has a fundamentally different viewpoint about what a natural river looks like than those people with expert knowledge. In order to decrease resistance to river management strategies involving wood (such as the campaign groups I mentioned in an earlier post) they argue the distance between the expert knowledge and the public needs to be reduce and they suggest that the public at large need to be exposed to more fluvial environments and to the expert knowledge of river managers in order to help reverse the deep rooted negative perceptions of wood in rivers.

The bulk of this perception work was done in the US, but I have no reason to suspect the overall results would be vastly different in the UK and EU and indeed some of the vociferous opposition to river restoration and wood in rivers I have come across suggests to me it would be the same.

What we can do

Although somewhat abstract I think the findings of these papers can provide some really important insight to river managers and scientists everywhere. Firstly we need to recognise the wider public perception of wood in rivers and river restoration in general, in order to anticipate where management strategies might fail to gain public support. Secondly the conclusions of these papers put the burden of “educating” the public in the hands of river managers and scientists so we all need to engage wherever we can to help spread the message that “wood is good”.


Studies reviewed:

Chin, A., Daniels, M., Urban, M., Piegay, H., Gregory, K., Bigler, W., Butt, A., Grable, J., Gregory, S., Lafrenz, M., 2008. Perceptions of wood in rivers and challenges for stream restoration in the United States. Environmental Management, 41(6), 893-903.

Chin, A., Laurencio, L., Daniels, M., Wohl, E., Urban, M., Boyer, K., Butt, A., Piegay, H., Gregory, K., 2012. The significance of perceptions and feedbacks for effectively managing wood in rivers. River Res. Appl., n/a-n/a.

Further references:

(1)    Ribe RG. 2009. In-stand scenic beauty of variable retention harvests and mature forests in the U.S. Pacific Northwest: the effects of basal area, density, retention pattern and down wood. Journal of Environmental Management 91: 245–260. DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2009.08.014.

(2)    Piégay H, Gregory KJ, Bondarev V, Chin A, Dahlstrom N, Elosegi A, Gregory SV, Joshi V, Mutz M, Rinaldi M, Wyzga B, Zawiejska J. 2005. Public perception as a barrier to introducing wood in rivers for restoration purposes. Environmental Management 36: 665–674. DOI: 10.1007/s00267-004-0092-z.

(3)    Le Lay Y-F, Piégay H, Gregory K, Chin A, Dolédec S, Elosegi A, Mutz M, Bartlomiej W, Zawiejska J. 2008. Variations in cross-cultural perception of riverscapes in relation to in-channel wood. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33: 268–287. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2008.00297.x.

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4 Responses to Perceptions of naturalness in rivers

  1. LWD
    Against; People have a fear of flooding. The flood defense guys are quick to remove any timber from the river and the guidance for riparian owners is that LWD should come out if it is a risk to flooding-at their cost. I’ve been caught out myself over the years, with carefully pinned timber being ripped up and lodged under bridges and culverts, blocking the flow.
    For: Anglers will walk up a river and cast to the fishy places. These are often places of CWD or LWD and these hold the fish. Talk to them on the bank and they are luke warm towards LWD as they think it will limit their fishing. (?!)

    Two experts can sit in a room and argue together, each quoting various peer reviewed documents of authority. One of them is wrong. Be careful in staking too much authority in other works, when you will know how much your own stuff has twisted and turned. We can prove opposite points with authority, whatever they are, we just have to look hard enough.

    • Simon Dixon says:

      Very true, reminds of a bit in The Thick of It where a minister is saying the expert advice is against a particular policy and he’s told he’s speaking to the wrong expert and needs to get a better one.

      I think in part it goes back to some of the things I was saying in the “why restore” post. It is beholden on people who work with rivers to help the public at large to be exposed to more varied river landscapes (whether that is in person, through TV, internet, etc) so that more people are aware of what a natural river looks like.

      Whether people (such as the fishermen you mention) decide from that increased awareness/knowledge that a river should be managed in a different way or not I would argue is not the point. People get different things from rivers and it is more than likely a lot of rivers cannot and should not actually be “natural”, their value as modified/artificial structures to people is too great (however depressing that idea is!) I tend towards the view point that we give people the tools and knowledge they need and then let them decide how best to use them.

      I hope to cover the issue of the applicability of restoration science in a future post.

  2. Pingback: Rivers flood | The River Management Blog

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