There's a huge problem in the way of environmental protection, and it's not what you think. New research has revealed that public opinion of a situation may actually improve as time goes on, even if the situation itself has not changed, limiting how and when support for new projects and laws can be rallied.

According to Hua Qin, an expert of rural sociology and sustainable development at the University of Missouri, this phenomenon can best be seen concerning the fight against invasive species like the spruce bark beetle that has been attacking Alaskan forests for decades.

Since the mid-1970s, beetles have killed mature spruce trees on 1.2 million acres of the Kenai Peninsula - about 50 percent of the area's forested land. And while early awareness promoted a short and vigorous battle against the invader, that passion has since fizzled. Today, it could be argued that many Alaskan residents are less concerned about the beetle than they once were - despite the fact that the situation has barely improved over the last 25 years. (Scoll to read on...)

In a study that drew on household survey answers collected in beetle-affected areas, Qin and his colleagues showed just how wrong public opinion can be with hard data. The results were published in the journal Human Ecology.

"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," Qin explained in a statement. "This shows the importance of understanding and addressing the human elements associated with natural hazards and other environmental problems. Human perceptions of events are not always in line with the realities of situations, so it is important for government agencies and other responding organizations to realize this complex phenomenon and address it when dealing with these types of problems."

According to the study, more than 1,000 peninsula residents were surveyed in two separate phases over the course of four years. They were asked to rate the effectiveness of government responses to the beetle kill problem.

It was strongly apparent that public opinion of the situation was that it was getting better, despite the fact that tree mortality had barely improved and even worsened in some regions. What's most surprising is that this issue wasn't even one that your everyday Joe might have a hard time measuring. Beetle kills lead to dangerous falling trees, high wildfire risks, loss of scenic views, and increased soil erosion - all things noticeable with the naked eye even over the course of four years. And yet, the residents were still convinced the situation was improving, potentially (and this is speculation) because local media and government representatives had stopped yammering about it. (Scroll to read on...)

"It says much about human adaption to find that perceptions of environmental problems change over time," Qin added. "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 US 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."

It should be pointed out that the study focuses specifically on the issue of invasive species management, and Qin does note that the public may treat other environmental issues very differently. Endangered species management, for instance, often has trouble reallocating funds away from species that no longer need as many protections, as it's hard to relay the message, "No, really, the humpback whale is going to be fine. Please give your money to pangolin conservation now."

Still, with climate change pressing in (although potentially not as quickly as we thought), and habitats changing to accommodate more invasions, problems like the spruce bark beetle may only grow more common. It's good then, that experts like Qin are passionate about saving nature and working to figure out how to stay involved.

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