Research Spotlight: Matthew Brownlee, Parks, Recreation, and Tourism

This photo, from the Environmental Protection Agency web site, shows the effects of drought on water levels in Lake Powell, a body of water that experiences heavy recreational use. Professor Brownlee's research studies people's experiences perceiving climate change in parks and other public lands.

This photo, from the Environmental Protection Agency web site, shows the effects of drought on water levels in Lake Powell, a body of water that experiences heavy recreational use. Professor Brownlee’s research studies people’s experiences perceiving climate change in parks and other public lands.

By Hilary Smith, Sustainability Resource Center

The climate is changing. This isn’t news. Climatic shifts have made themselves known in a variety of ways: rising water levels in some places, drought in others, and a wide range of often-unpredictable extreme weather events. Change is happening under our noses, but often we seem not to notice.

Parks, Recreation and Tourism professor Matthew Brownlee

Parks, Recreation and Tourism professor Matthew Brownlee

Matt Brownlee, a professor of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism here at the U, says this is partially because humans as a species are not very good at perceiving or caring about gradual change. More dramatic change, by contrast, affects us more, because we can sense that it directly affects our survival.

Brownlee is curious about how policy makers, natural resource managers, park naturalists, and other stakeholders might ethically increase people’s concern regarding environmental issues, like global climate change, that are significant but which make themselves seen in gradual, subtle ways.

His current research has focused on how people’s experiences in a particular setting—in parks and on public lands—shape their perceptions of local and global environmental issues. These places, Brownlee explains, provide an interesting “theatre and backdrop” for studying how the effects of climate change are made more “tangible and real” to the average person.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 80.7 percent of Americans live in urban areas—leading lives, Brownlee explains, that are for the most part insulated and climate-controlled. They don’t get the chance to feel the effects of climate change in their everyday lives, and one can experience only so much emotional impact from reading about climate change in the newspaper or poring over weather data.

Lived experience, by contrast, can provide much more powerful teaching moments. Often, some of the most emotionally influential and illustrative experiences with climate change occur in the course of outdoor recreation—during activities the person might partake in for pleasure, like skiing, boating, or hiking. They happen, Brownlee says, when a skiier notices that the snow line on his or her favorite backcountry peak gets higher every year, or when the water in a reservoir gets so low he or she can no longer get a boat in. The sensory element is particularly important as well: For example, even if we knew the air was polluted here in Salt Lake, if we couldn’t see or smell the inversion, we would likely be much less concerned about air quality, Brownlee says.

Brownlee and several coauthors published the results of research exploring these ideas in a July 2014 article in the journal

Lake Hartwell, the South Carolina reservoir where Brownlee and fellow researchers performed their surveys.  Photo: South Carolina Dept. of Natural Resources.

Lake Hartwell, the South Carolina reservoir where Brownlee and fellow researchers performed their surveys.
Photo: South Carolina Dept. of Natural Resources.

Society & Natural Resources. This research project was centered around Lake Hartwell, a 56,000-acre reservoir in northwest South Carolina near the state’s border with Georgia. The man-made lake is popular for fishing, swimming, boating, camping, and water sports like waterskiing and wakeboarding.

Researchers wanted to gauge the effects of various factors—including place attachment (i.e., how a person is emotionally and cognitively connected to a place), awareness of local drought conditions, beliefs surrounding global climate change, and concern for the impacts of local drought—on attitudes surrounding household-level water conservation regulations and behaviors. In other words, how likely were people to accept a measure such as a ban on lawn watering, based on the following: how place-connected they were, how aware they were that the reservoir’s water levels were down, whether or not they believed in global climate change, and whether or not they were concerned that local drought conditions would harm something they value—either the lake itself, or their recreation opportunities upon it.

Brownlee and his fellow researchers performed a multifaceted study, querying 229 recreational users of the lake. The study incorporated interviews, questionnaires, photo-related questioning (i.e., showing people photos of altered landscapes and gauging their responses), GPS visitor tracking, and structural equation modeling (a method that allowed all the factors to be combined and studied at once.)

What they found was that concern, more than the other factors, ultimately had the strongest predictive effect on how people would react to water conservation measures. The more concerned respondents were that low water levels would impact the lake’s health or their own recreational opportunities on the lake, the more likely they were to accept the imposition of household-level water use restrictions, like bans on car-washing or lawn-watering. Brownlee says this result is complicated because concern is actually influenced, in turn, by the other three factors.

Across the board, study participants were more likely to accept water use restrictions that were lifestyle restricting—like limits on car washing and lawn watering—versus restrictions that impede more life-centric water uses, like bathing or dishwashing.

Recognizing the effect of concern on conservation attitudes, says Brownlee, begs the question, how do managers ethically and effectively increase people’s levels of concern about environmental issues, and how do they do it without turning that concern into alarm, which is more sensationalized and can bring about hopelessness? Some of the work, he says, must fall on park interpreters, naturalists, educators, and science communicators, who can help to transform information into instructive experiences that cause people to both think and feel.

Brownlee says he always shares his research results first with practitioners—park managers, natural resource management folks and the like—before the results are published as academic papers. He says that he enjoys this dual existence, keeping one foot in academia and one in the applied sphere. What he likes most about his research, he says, is “being intellectually curious.”

Research Spotlight is an occasional series on SustainableUtah. Do you know a faculty member or student currently performing sustainability-related research related to sustainability? Send story suggestions to hilary.smith@utah.edu.

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