Survey Research Program

Hearing Every Voice

BBER Surveys Help Policymakers Understand the True Preferences of the Public

When it comes to making decisions with public input, the voices of a vocal minority frequently drown out those of the majority. Likewise, the public often doesn’t have a complete picture of all the costs and benefits associated with various choices when asked to weigh in on a decision. That’s why BBER surveys have become an invaluable tool for researchers trying to discern the public opinion when managing natural resources.

Researcher Tyron Venn, Assistant Professor of Natural Resource Economics at the University of Montana, sought to determine preferences of the public in weed management. Many decisions of this kind are complex and incorporate various contingencies. One’s preferred decision might change depending on a variety of factors such as appearance, cost, and potential benefit. Venn wanted to find out how varied conditions affected how much individuals valued weed control and how much they might be willing to pay for a weed control program

Venn partnered with BBER’s Survey Research team to conduct a mail survey that asked 1,500 people to weigh in on approximately 16 choices related to weed control in public areas. The data collection process was designed by John Baldridge, director of Survey Development, and Jim Sylvester, director of Survey Operations.

With natural resource areas like weed control that are not widely known, people surveyed often don’t have enough information to make an informed decision. Questionnaires were simple and easy to use and included photographs so people could visualize what the choices looked like in a natural setting. Respondents were given a menu of costs and benefits associated with various weed management options and invited to indicate which choice they preferred.

The study also controlled for our human tendencies to make decisions irrationally or inconsistently. Factors were varied 8 or 10 different times for each person to assess how much they value those factors. By asking questions enough times in varied ways, the survey designers ensured the responses accurately represented the true opinion of the individuals taking the surveys.

Careful sampling methods also ensured that the sample truly represented the larger population. A total sample of 3,000 people was selected in order to get 1,500 completions – a rate of 50 percent. BBER’s Survey Research team followed AAPOR guidelines for calculations, leading to a higher quality data set.

The results of Venn’s research have been published in peer-reviewed journals such as Ecological Economics, Forest Policy and Economics, and the International Journal of Wildland Fire. His work informs the decisions that policy-makers in the legislative and executive branches make, allowing them a more complete picture of what people want and value in managing weed control.

Survey designer John Baldridge explained the importance of carefully-designed surveys in natural resource management. “Such data can serve as a counterweight to interest groups who would have you believe their assertions equal public opinion,” he said. “In truth, these studies have found that the public’s views on an issue are nuanced, fairly well-considered, and frequently don’t align with interest groups on either side.”