FEDERAL AGENCIES ARE REQUIRED under several laws to assess the potential effects of their proposed actions on the public in general, distinct groups of the public, and the human environment. In particular, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to evaluate the effects of proposed policies on the environment via an Environmental Impact Statement. The agencies are required to use this information to "consider" the effect on the human environment when selecting the preferred alternative. The State of California has a parallel regulation in the California Environment Quality Act, which also requires an Environment Impact Report on any relevant state policy under consideration. In 1994, then-President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, which requires agencies to address the concern for environmental justice among ethnic minorities and low-income households in the United States. The Executive Order states: "each Federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States and its territories and possessions" (Clinton 1994). Under this Executive Order, federal agencies are required to evaluate the effects of policy and its alternatives on ethnic minorities and low-income households.
Surveys are one popular and accepted means for government agencies to gauge support or opposition to proposed policy alternatives or to estimate whether the public would benefit from or be harmed by proposed environmental policies. Survey information helps agencies refine policy proposals and choose a policy alternative that is responsive to public concerns. For example, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has conducted a series of surveys over the last several years to gain an understanding of public preferences for forest and recreation management. However, historically, nearly all surveys dealing with natural resource issues have been administered only in English, leaving out a substantial proportion of the citizenry that either does not speak English or is more comfortable interacting in another language. Since language is an indicator of culture, and since culture can influence attitudes and preferences for the natural environment, conducting surveys only in English may create bias in the data collected and subsequent policy decisions. Clearly, then, environmental impact assessments of public policies should take into account any differences due to language and ethnicity. If there are little or no differences by language and ethnicity, then current survey administration practices may be acceptable. If there are systematic differences, this suggests that government agencies need to expand their sampling strategies and perform surveys in the primary languages of the citizens in order to formulate policies that reflect the wants of all citizens.
This issue has become of great concern, as Hispanics have now become the nation's largest minority group, surpassing African Americans, a transition occurring well sooner than anticipated (Cohn 2003). Of the 18 percent of the U.S. population that does not speak English at home, 60 percent speak Spanish (U.S. Census Bureau 2003). Hispanics may evaluate environmental policy options differently than non-Hispanics. In addition, it is not sufficient to assume that Hispanics who are bilingual adequately represent Hispanics who only speak Spanish. Biased survey results may lead to inefficient natural resource policies in which the actual or realized benefits are less than the costs.
Of interest for this paper is the intersection of ethnicity and language with forest fire policy. During 2000 and 2002, the United States experienced its two worst fire seasons in a half-century. …