How Wildlife, Recreation, and Demographics Affect Public Acceptability of Development in Vermont

May. 24th 2019
Photo of Sterling Pond

In recent years, development in Vermont has increased significantly. Development like the construction of houses, roads, and infrastructure alters landscapes and can have effects on the environment, like habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, and changes in biodiversity and air, water and soil quality. Development also affects opportunities for outdoor recreation, which typically requires undeveloped tracts of land for recreational experiences, like hunting, bird watching and hiking. Environmental policies can ensure that land development is sustainable. These policies are often influenced by public opinion, so having a better understanding of public attitudes towards development can help shape effective land management policies. A 2011 survey of public acceptability of development in Vermont found that on average there was a willingness by residents to accept an 11% increase in development in their towns.

To follow up on the 2011 survey, researchers from the University of Vermont, USGS Vermont Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department assessed public acceptability of development and how factors like wildlife and outdoor recreation participation shape acceptability. Researchers surveyed 9,000 households across the state of Vermont in 2014.

Researchers used a visual preference survey with a series of six illustrations of altered rural towns to show increasing levels of development. Survey respondents were asked to rank each illustration using a scale of negative four (the illustration was completely unacceptable) to positive four (the illustration was completely acceptable).

To capture information on wildlife, researchers asked respondents how acceptable it would be for each of seven wildlife species (black bear, fisher, raccoon, deer, bobcat, coyote and fox) to live in or near their towns using the acceptability scale. Recreation involvement was determined by asking respondents which of eight common outdoor recreational activities they participate in (birding, hiking, hunting, fishing, off-road ATVing, farming/gardening, snowmobiling and camping). Demographic questions on the survey asked whether or not respondents were born in Vermont, if Vermont was their primary residence, what year they were born and if they were homeowners.

Results indicated that the maximum acceptability of development at the town level was similar to the 2011 survey.  In general, information on the presence or absence of wildlife had little impact on acceptability of development. However, views on specific wildlife species did influence a person’s level of acceptability of development. For example, as respondents’ acceptability of bear increased, acceptability of development decreased, and as acceptability of coyote increased, respondents’ acceptability of development increased, as well.

Similar links were also true for recreation and demographics. Respondents who participated in both birding and hunting had a lower acceptability of development than those that participated in any other form of recreation. Demographically, people who lived in more populated areas had a higher acceptability of development. However, those born in Vermont were less accepting of development, and younger respondents were more accepting of development than older respondents.

Overall, based on this survey and the prior 2011 survey, acceptable development levels are only 10% more than the current level of development in Vermont. As development continues to occur, this study can help provide insight on how acceptability of development is affected by wildlife and recreation. Municipalities can use this information to effectively plan for development in a way that considers public acceptability related to factors beyond economics, like the environment.