Multicultural Evaluation of the Performance of Contingent Valuation for Forest Fire Prevention

Article excerpt


The summers of 2000 and 2002 were two of the worst on record for forest fires in the United States. The summer of 2002 resulted in catastrophic wildfires burning nearly 6 million acres, destroying more than 2,300 houses, and resulting in 20 firefighter deaths. Damages and restoration costs are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. In response, President Bush proposed a Healthy Forests Initiative for Wildfire Prevention on 22 August 2002. A key element in this initiative is reduction of excess brush and ground fuels that have accumulated due to past fire suppression. This reduction in fuels is to be accomplished by mechanical thinning of the forests and by controlled or prescribed burning of the forest floor.

The policy of accelerating the amount of land to be mechanically thinned or prescribed burned to 2.5 million acres a year is not without opposition. Prescribed burning can generate significant quantities of smoke, which affects visibility and creates health problems for people with respiratory conditions. Prior initiatives to increase prescribed burning in states such as Florida and Washington have often been limited by citizen opposition due to smoke and health effects. The prescribed burning program is also expensive and costs as much as $250 per acre. Thus a policy-relevant issue is whether this time there will be sufficient public support for an active prescribed burning program to occur. This article extends previous work in Florida (Loomis et al., 2002) on the performance of contingent valuation method (CVM) in representing the views of Spanish-speaking Hispanics and English-speaking residents of Florida toward prescribed burning in two directions. First, the authors add a targeted sample of a third minority group (African Americans). Second, they inquire whether there are differences in CVM responses of Hispanics asked to take the survey in English (as is commonly done) versus in Spanish, typically a more native language for Hispanics. This allows the authors to better isolate the effect of language (Spanish versus English) from race/culture (Hispanics, whites, and African Americans). The results provide the most comprehensive evaluation of the performance of CVM in a multiracial and multilingual society, such as California.

The economic importance of understanding racial and language differences when making public policy decisions is growing daily. Collectively, minority groups are close to becoming the majority in many states of the United States. Many of these minority groups speak languages other than English. The U.S. Bureau of Census data indicates that 32 million adults in the United States speak a language other than English in their home. Furthermore, these multiracial populations are increasing faster than the English-speaking population in many states. Census data from 1990 to 1999 showed that on average, the Hispanic population grew by 39% in the United States, with states such as Arizona, California, Florida, New Mexico, and Texas having an even more rapidly increasing Hispanic population. Many in the Hispanic population either do not speak English or are more fluent in Spanish than in English. In this study area in California, nearly one-third of the population (11 million people) are of Hispanic or Latino origin. In the populous Los Angeles area, Hispanics represent 45% of the population. Another important racial or ethnic group in California are African Americans, representing 7.5% of the California population or 2.5 million people.

The growing importance of minority groups has been formally recognized in numerous policies, including Executive Order 12898, which requires federal agencies to evaluate environmental justice of federal actions on minority populations. To carry out this evaluation, policy makers must understand whether there are any differential effects of their projects or policies on many minority cultures. Surveys are a commonly used technique to assess the potential effects of policy actions on residents (Brainbridge, 1989). …