Understanding perceptions of the state of the environment in relation to ecological measures: Intergroup differences and the influences of an interpretive program
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Understanding the state of environment is foundational to environmental management. There is a clear need for enhanced ecosystem status assessments. At the same time, there are scholarly trends toward incorporating the social sciences in environmental management. Evidently, there is a need for more ecological as well as social knowledge of the state of our ecosystems. This thesis examines how the state of the environment is understood through an ecological and social perspective. Emphasis is placed on ecological measures as well as perceptions, with specific attention to intergroup differences and the influences of an interpretive program. Two studies were conducted at the Niagara Glen Nature Reserve, a protected area in the Niagara Region of Canada. The first study consisted of an ecological assessment and a survey administered to experts and visitors. The ecological assessment of the state of the environment was compared to expert perception-based assessments. Perceptions were also compared between experts and visitors. The second study involved administering the survey to individuals receiving two different educational interventions, thereby exploring the influence of an environmental interpretive program on how people perceive the environment. Overall results from the two studies show that expert perception-based methods of environmental status can be a proxy for ecological data in cases where perceptions align with ecological measures, and can be used to complement ecological data in cases where perceptions are at odds with ecological measures. Visitors’ overall perceptions differed significantly from ecological measures, regardless of an interpretive program, and in fact, an interpretive program increased the difference. Visitors and experts were also found to differ significantly in their perceptions, a meaningful finding for resolving intergroup conflicts and for building a common understanding. Findings from the research can improve status assessments, address intergroup conflicts, develop a better sense of the people that interact with a natural site, inform areas for education efforts, and enhance the effectiveness of education programs. This thesis highlights the value in comparing perceptions to ecological measures and emphasizes the importance of evidence from natural and social sciences to managing social-ecological systems.