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Demographics and Social Values

How resources are used depends on who is using them

The ways in which people obtain benefits from the landscapes around them can depend on culture, age, and many other social factors. For example, the land use preferences and opportunities of people living in rural areas can be very different from those of people in cities. Even within a single Appalachian community, the ecological benefits that different people choose to utilize vary (e.g., hunting versus bird watching). These differences can be associated with income, age, and other demographic factors.

Demographic patterns across landscapes may relate in unexpected ways to natural resource use and to the consequences of environmental change. Factors at work in Appalachia include race, income, culture, and religious beliefs. Communities in poverty may lack the means to adapt to extreme weather events such as droughts and flooding, and they can therefore be more vulnerable than others to climate change. Poverty can also restrict basic access to many ecosystem services, such as recreational uses and even clean water. Rural Appalachian communities can be cultural repositories of traditional ecological knowledge that drive activities such as harvesting nontimber forest products (e.g., ginseng).

Societal needs and ethics inform choices about resource use

Social values strongly shape how people interact with landscapes, because these values define what kinds of ecosystem services people are interested in. Where different people hold different values, conflicts over ecosystem services can and do arise, underscoring the importance of including these considerations in land management strategies. However, finding ways to integrate social values into inclusive decision-making processes can be challenging. Demographic factors have been used as proxies for social values with some success. Another strategy is to estimate monetary values for ecosystem services, for example by evaluating people’s “willingness to pay” for a particular service—this translates social values into perhaps more tangible economic terms.

These efforts can be complex because demographic and economic realities interact with social values, or preferences, in ways that are different from one community to the next. For land managers, this makes it important to consider different landscapes in terms of their unique social—as well as ecological—contexts. The complexity of conservation in Appalachia arises not only from the diversity of ecosystems in the region, but also from its varied demographics.

Demographic data can help to reveal geographic patterns in ecological benefits and risks, and how these change over time with societal shifts. Rural communities, for example, may be displaced as regions urbanize, land values rise, dominant social values shift, and land uses change. Social and ecological change are thus intertwined, and addressing the concerns of everyone involved can improve outcomes for Appalachian communities and landscapes.

In summary, understanding how and why people make the decisions they do about land and natural resources is important for understanding ecosystem service use. Incorporating these realities into resource management decision-making can be an opportunity for building community consensus and improving sustainability.

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