What Does the Public Know about Wetlands in Michigan? Using Focus Groups for Scoping and Exploratory Research

Article excerpt


Vileisis (1997, xii) prefaces her highly regarded work on American wetlands by pointing out that, "we must know not only the science that proves [wetland] values but also the society that struggles to accommodate those values amid myriad pressing others." Wetlands, like other complex ecosystems, are influenced by interacting geophysical, chemical, biological, and human systems. While society seems to increasingly value wetland services such as water quality improvement, flood control, wildlife habitat, and recreation, individual owners of wetlands are often unable to profit from their wetlands' provision of such public goods (Heimlich et al. 1998). As a result, there is often a tension between public and private interests in wetland protection. Therefore, policymakers and others interested in resolving such a tension and crafting improved public policy need to better understand what matters to people about wetlands and the services they provide (Scodari 1997). A better understanding of what matters to the public about wetlands may help in the design of policies and education efforts that are more effective and better supported by the public.

While some studies have tried to measure the economic value of specific wetlands (e.g., Stevens et al. 1995; Streever et al. 1998), other studies have addressed potential biases in the economic valuation of wetlands (e.g., Teal and Loomis 2000). However, it is often unclear in these and other studies what it is about wetlands that people actually know and appreciate (Swallow et al. 1998). Too often, it seems that "decisions affecting wetlands are often made without adequate knowledge of public attitudes" (Stevens et al. 1995, 226). Furthermore, "The quality of decisions may suffer if governmental agencies make decisions according to what citizens want based on their own (perhaps limited) experience [citations omitted]" (Lauber et al. 2002).

This paper reports on the use of focus groups as a method for helping researchers understand the public's "baseline" wetland knowledge and appreciation. Such information on the public's baseline wetland knowledge will help policymakers, researchers, and stakeholders make informed decisions vis-a-vis wetland protection. The paper describes the study objectives and the methods used, then presents the results before exploring some of the implications of the findings. Finally the paper concludes with a discussion of some possible policy and research impacts.


Wetlands are transitional ecosystems that occupy a spectrum between land and water ecosystems (National Research Council (U.S.) Committee on Characterization of Wetlands 1995). Types of wetlands include: bottomland swamps, tidal marshes, cattail marshes, vernal ponds, fens, and bogs. Wetlands provide a range of ecological and biogeochemical functions such as water storage, maintenance of surface and groundwater flows, biochemical cycling, and maintenance of characteristic habitats. These biological, chemical, and physical functions, in turn, provide services that may be valued by people. For example, the flood water retention function of a wetland may be responsible for the service of flood control that may be positively valued by individuals. In the United States, a wetland protection policy of "no net loss" seeks to stem the loss of wetlands. To operationalize the "no net loss" policy, state and federal governments require mitigation (i.e., replacement) of destroyed wetlands through the creation, restoration, or protection of equivalent wetlands in the area (National Research Council (U.S.) Committee on Characterization of Wetlands 1995). However, even in instances where wetland acreage is unchanged by mitigating an equal number of acres, the quality of wetlands and their ability to provide services is often diminished (Dahl 2000).


This research set out to assess the knowledge of Michigan citizens regarding wetlands and wetland ecosystems. …