Public Understandings of Environmental Quality: A Case Study of Private Forest Land Management in Southwest Virginia

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Virginia Tech

Environmental quality is a construct that has currency at the interface between science and policy—it is used both to describe current conditions as well as prescribe desired future conditions. However, environmental quality has a multiplicity of definitions, owing to: a) the fact that there are a number of terms (or "sub constructs") taken to be synonymous with environmental quality (i.e. environmental health, sustainability, biodiversity, integrity, and the like), and b) the fact that each of these sub constructs, in turn, have multiple meanings. Many in the field of natural sciences have been working on this problem of ambiguity—attempting to develop precise and powerful definitions. Still others argue that environmental quality is a concept open to societal negotiation (in addition to scientific discovery). In this thesis, I argue that environmental quality can be understood and discussed by examining understandings of Nature and evaluations for Nature that seem to contribute to the ambiguity of meanings and outcomes for environmental quality.

To reach these conclusions, I interviewed 24 stakeholders who represented a broad range of concerns about and interests in environmental quality on private forest land in Southwest Virginia. I reviewed nearly 300 pages of interview text, looking for emerging themes and structures from their hour-long (on average) discussions of environmental quality. I found that among these 24 stakeholders, there were indeed, many ways of defining environmental quality (i.e. health, biodiversity, site productivity, et cetera). Additionally, I found that these different definitions for environmental quality seem to correlate with different understandings of Nature (what is Nature like?) and different values for Nature (how should Nature be used?) I conclude by discussing these implications, using examples from forestry outreach and extension.

Forest Health, Social Construction, Environmental Discourse, Private Forest Landowners, Environmental Values, Understandings of Nature