Loosely 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.
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”.
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.
(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.