The Public Detective

Seeking public opinion on environmental issues

It's common for opposing groups to strongly express their opinions on environmental issues such as protection of endangered animals or proper use of natural resources such as streams, rivers, lakes, and forests. Often, these groups represent small but vocal segments of society that use protest or other means to capture the megaphone of mass media in an attempt to sway legislation. Eventually, these issues escalate until they become a pressure cooker of conflicting information and public attention that make it difficult for policy- and decision-makers to act intelligently, not knowing what the general public really wants and is willing to pay for.

Colorado State University professor John Loomis is focusing on this problem by conducting surveys of the general public and providing results to those who make decisions – elected officials, state and federal agency managers, industry, and interested general public. Since 1993, Loomis, of the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, has teamed with graduate students to conduct public surveys to determine the recreational use and non-use values of natural resources such as water, forests, and threatened or endangered species.

"You might call us detectives," says Loomis, who considers his position as an objective investigator at a research institution one of the keys to the perceived validity of his research. His research uses proven methods of social science research such as random sampling and built-in reliability checks. Plus, unlike the groups involved in these issues, Loomis has nothing to gain from the outcome. "We're seeking answers," he says, "and we're impartial."

What's more, Loomis wants the public to put its money where its mouth is. "We want to know what the general public thinks about the value of these issues in terms of dollars," he says.

To do that, Loomis devotes considerable time asking respondents what they would pay for a particular action. For example, in a survey Loomis conducted on federal land use to provide habitat for endangered species in the Four Corners Area of Colorado, respondents were asked how much they would pay to maintain critical habitat for the Mexican Spotted Owl. It may surprise some to learn that the average household said it would pay up to $100 per year.

Another survey focused on establishing a Four Corners Region Threatened and Endangered Fish Trust Fund. The fund would cover nine species of endangered fish. In this case, the average household responded that it would pay up to $200 per year.

Loomis says survey results on these often controversial but critical issues provide important information to those who make decisions about the future of our natural resources. "This information will become even more important in the future as Colorado continues to change," says Loomis. "We're experiencing significant growth with more people, new businesses, and more demand for resources such as land, water, space, and recreation facilities. These changes often result in conflict over natural resources. We think our research and survey tools will play an even more important role in helping the general public inform government officials about how to manage the state's natural resources."