+ INPUT

Killer Beetles

They're Worse Than Some Think

For more than one quarter of a century, a massive infestation of Dendroctonus rufipennis, a.k.a., the spruce-bark beetle, has wreaked havoc on forests in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. At last count some one million acres of Kenai’s trees have been destroyed, part of approximately 2 billion board feet of Alaskan timber lost to the killer bug.

One might guess that local residents would be troubled about this slow-motion environmental disaster, says MU’s Hua Qin, an assistant professor of rural sociology and sustainable development. Working with Courtney Flint from Utah State University and A.E. Luloff of Pennsylvania State, Qin used household survey data from the area to determine that, yes, residents had remained concerned about the problem over a four-year time period. Just not as concerned as they probably should have been.

“Although the beetle outbreak remains a significant issue on the Kenai Peninsula, the perceptions of residents about the level of seriousness of the beetle-kill problem in the area have actually decreased during the study period,” says Qin, adding that the decrease is not related to any substantial improvement in forest conditions.

Fact is, Qin says, there has been little change in the degrees of tree mortality and natural regrowth in affected areas. Yet over time survey respondents not only perceived the problem to be less serious, they also reported being less concerned with the mostly ineffective government response. How can this be?

“It says much about human adaption to find that perceptions of environmental problems change over time,” says Qin, adding that such what-me-worry adaptations could have serious implications for all kinds of environmental policy choices in an era of changing climate.

“As we see increased environmental effects due to climate change in the future, it is important for those working in government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to understand this temporal effect on human attitudes about environmental problems as it could provide valuable information about how to handle the social aspects of future environmental issues.”

The study was published in the February 2015 issue of an interdisciplinary environmental social science journal, Human Ecology.

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