Call for Abstracts – Climate Change

The Western Rural Development Center is soliciting articles for its June 2011 issue of Rural Connections. The topic for this issue will be challenges and opportunities facing the rural West relative to climate change and climate change policies.

Abstracts Due: Friday, March 4, 2011

Click here for the details.

Overview
The EPA says, “The extent of climate change effects, and whether these effects prove harmful or beneficial, will vary by region, over time, and with the ability of different societal and environmental systems to adapt to or cope with the change.”[i] The Center is interested in understanding challenges and opportunities facing the West’s rural communities as they relate to climate change. Furthermore, the Center wants to share this information with its stakeholders to increase awareness of the region’s activities and to build the capacity of Extension and communities by providing them with relevant and timely information.

The WRDC is not interested in arguments for or against climate change, rather the WRDC is interested in sharing with its stakeholders the research and community and economic development activities that are underway in the region to address currently changing climates and how these changes are bringing economic opportunities and/or challenges to the West’s rural communities.

Sub-Topics
The topic of challenges and opportunities facing the Rural West as they relate to climate change and climate change policy is broad in scope and allows for submissions from a wide range of sub-topics including but not limited to the following topics listed in no particular order of priority:

  • Climate change policies and how they are impacting business/job growth in the West
  • Impacts of Climate Change on Agricultural Production
  • Impacts of Climate Change on Natural Resources
  • Impacts of Climate Change on National Security
  • Innovations in Climate Change Technologies Manufactured in Rural Communities

Click here to read and download the complete Call for Abstracts.


[i] US Environmental Protection Agency.  Climate Change – Health and Environmental Effects.  Retrieved February 3, 2011, from http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/effects/index.html


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A Teachable Moment

“Perhaps the rebuilding of the body and spirit is the greatest service derivable from our forests, for what worth are material things if we lose the character and quality of people that are the soul of America.” (Arthur Carhart, 1919-1922)

When I was student teaching as part of my undergraduate program in Michigan I taught Jr. High Science and Conservation Education. I was fortunate to study with Dr. Bill Stapp—an amazing outdoor educator who sadly passed on in 2001. He left behind an amazing legacy of environmental educators. It was during this period that I learned about teachable moments . . . most likely from Dr. Stapp. Teachable moments are those windows of opportunity that present themselves with unanticipated events. Often these opportunities go unnoticed. When they are recognized as an invitation to share understanding, knowledge, or experience, magic can happen. People become more open to new ideas and learning than they otherwise might have been. As a researcher I’ve seen this happen with an upswing in the adoption of community preparedness and defensible space activities following wildfires.

This past month Forest Service employees experienced a teachable moment . . . and the delivery was much different from the usual (and some would say much too frequent) required on-line training. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell suffered a heart attack on January 5. Fortunately he recognized the symptoms and quickly took appropriate action. As word spread throughout the agency, employees across the country requested information about heart attack symptoms. The Chief’s right coronary artery had become blocked.  After a stent was placed in the artery, he was soon resting at home and in the days that followed agency employees became much more aware of how to recognize the signs of heart attack and the importance of taking quick action.

Heart health is a research interest of mine, especially in terms of the disease prevention and rehabilitation benefits of spending time in nature. Arthur Carhart, a landscape architect, recreation planner and a forester by training, experienced first-hand benefits from spending time in the forest. Recent studies support Carhart’s declaration (above) about forest benefits, finding that as little as 15-30 minutes a day in a natural setting contributes to improved health.  Spending time in nature (see the September 2010 issue of Rural Connections; Volume 5, Issue 1 – 10MB PDF) can reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and stress, increase immune system function and improve outlook on life—each is related to heart health.

A new report just released by the American Heart Association projects the annual cost to treat heart disease to triple by 2030, increasing from $273 billion to $818 billion (in 2008 dollars). Cases of heart attack and stroke are projected to rise about 25 percent, with 40.5 percent of Americans having some form of heart disease, up from 36.9 percent today. What if getting more people out into the forest more frequently could help reduce those figures? Research suggests this is possible. The Forest Service and other public land management agencies, including state and local parks and recreation departments, have an important role here.

A University of Michigan study recently found that those who spent time walking in nature had reduced stress and improved capacity to pay attention. Recreating on public lands is one way to spend time in nature, another way is through volunteering.

In December I participated in a strategic planning meeting for the Forest Service’s Volunteer and Service Program.  I was energized and inspired by the passion that Forest Service employees from across the country have for this important program. The Volunteer and Service Program promotes opportunities for people to assist the agency in fulfilling its mission of caring for the land and serving people.

I used to think that volunteer programs were merely a cost effective way to get work done when funding to hire employees or contractors was inadequate. While this is often the case, after interacting with volunteers myself and reading the research findings of others, it is clear to me that the benefits of the volunteer program go far beyond what is accomplished on the land with a variety of benefits accruing to the volunteers themselves. Providing volunteer opportunities is truly serving the people.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service 61.8 million Americans across the country, including 8.2 million young adults between 16-24 years old, contributed 8 billion hours of volunteer service valued at $162 billion in 2008. Even through the recent economic downturn volunteerism has continued to grow. Volunteering is part of doing business for both non-profit groups and government agencies and part of a healthy lifestyle for Americans of all ages.

My personal interest in volunteer programs was piqued a few years ago when several Forest Service volunteers that I was interviewing impressed me with what they described as their desire to “give back”, “share what we know”, and to experience the “aha moments” that come with the experience of introducing children and inner city children and adults to the wonders of nature.  The volunteers I spoke with—all Baby Boomers and many retirees—described their desire to stay physically, mentally, emotionally and socially active and engaged in their community through sharing their expertise, knowledge, and passion for nature and special places.  Studies have shown that good health is the most important factor contributing to a happy retirement. The retirees I interviewed seemed to have figured that out for themselves.

Benefits of volunteering include reduced stress and depression, a greater sense of well-being, purpose and meaning, and longer, healthier lives, especially for adults 65 and older—a group that is growing.  Totaling over 76 million Americans, Boomers, including all those born from 1946-1964 and making up over 40 percent of the population, have begun to retire. This pool of potential volunteers represents both an opportunity and a challenge.

Volunteering is a healthy thing to do. Volunteering in nature compounds the health and well-being benefits experienced by volunteers. The Forest Service, along with other resource management agencies, provides a variety of volunteer opportunities and experiences that can contribute to the improved health and well-being of volunteers.  Thus, in addition to contributing to stewardship and restoration of the land, supplementing education and interpretation programs, accomplishing trail and campground maintenance, participating in research studies and other volunteer efforts volunteer opportunities contribute to improving human health and reducing health care costs.

I can’t think of a better win-win opportunity. The challenge will be whether the Forest Service and other government agencies can raise to the occasion presented by this large—and growing larger by the day—pool of potential and eager volunteers. I’ll be revisiting topics of health and nature, volunteering and baby boomers in future blogs. For now how about sharing your favorite teachable moments?

Linda Kruger is a social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station in Juneau, Alaska.

p.s. — February is Heart Awareness Month. Here are some additional resources for understanding and maintaining heart health:

February is Heart Awareness Month (www.medicinenet.com)

10 Myths About Heart Disease (yourlife.usatoday.com)

Sociology of Environment – Not Your Normal College Course

I love teaching college students.  Absolutely adore it.  Mid-January is here, and for me this means a new academic semester has begun and teaching resumes.  This time around, I have the pleasure of teaching Sociology of Environment and Natural Resources.  My 40-some students and I discuss some of the potential reasons behind environmental degradation – overpopulation, overconsumption, global production systems.  We also spend a quarter of the class learning about and analyzing global environmental justice case studies.  After units on climate change, energy policy, and agricultural systems, the end of the course focuses on potential solutions and student projects.

Having taught this course before, I’ve learned the basic rhythms of a course wherein students think not just about an abstract subject matter but something different, something bigger and yet more personal.  Instead of teaching statistics, for example, I’m asking them to question their orientation to the natural world.  Thus, this is one of the few courses in which students feel compelled to analyze their behavior and grapple with whether those behaviors should change.  More than any other course I’ve taught, this one is the most challenging and rewarding.  Challenging because, especially at this particular university, I encounter many students who are quite conservative and think of environmentalism as a strictly political issue (and, at that, a liberal one of which they want no part).  At the same time, teaching this class generates tangible rewards; when worldview barriers are overcome, breakthroughs for students can be life-altering.   About 30 of the 40 students will think about what they read and perhaps reduce their consumption temporarily or think about driving less and biking more.  But in a smaller portion of the class, I can watch deep-seated philosophical changes take place, something I have yet to experience in other classes of mine like Social Statistics or Social Psychology.

A vivid example comes to mind.  One student in the last session of this course began the semester with his head firmly planted on the desk.  He showed up for class most days, but within about ten minutes his head would be buried in his crooked arm.  Yes, he was that student that, for instructors, creates worry and unease, even when the rest of the class may give you their undivided attention. Despite my gentle urging, this behavior continued on through February and into March.  In March, we began reading about environmental justice cases around the world.  Stories of communities touched by toxic contamination from extraction activities and production facilities.  Many times, people in affected communities will notice their contamination, resultant illnesses or ailments, and begin long-term grassroots activism to fight the extraction, the facility, or at least get basic answers for their families and neighbors.

These stories, in turns out, brought my sleepy student back to life.  During those class periods, and for most of them that followed, this particular student transformed before my eyes.  He became alert, engaged, and inquisitive, often staying after class to ask questions or discuss a particular case study.  Through those conversations, I learned this student was from a town in Utah where coal mining was the main economic activity.  He described being raised in a community where a strange silver dust covered most cars, homes, and park equipment.  He also described a debilitating condition he had, in which the discs of his spine were being slowly crushed, for reasons no doctors has been able to explain.  He told me that many of his neighbors and family members suffered from similar and other ailments.  Apparently, the coal processing plant near his home discharged methyl mercury, and people in his community noticed widespread health problems that many residents, according to my student, saw as related to coal processing.  The case studies we were reading and the class discussions my student shared with peers moved him so deeply because they seemed to describe his own experiences as they unfurled.  He encouraged his mother to join with some of her neighbors to conduct a health study and get access to grant monies for further research, and by the time the class ended, the Utah Department of Health was looking into the local claims of illness and chronic conditions.  Any concrete outcome may take many years, but the beginning seems encouraging.

While events such as these are certainly not common, I begin each semester with the hope that Sociology of Environment will change my students’ perspectives on the natural world.  At the very least, I hope it transforms environmentalism from a political issue into a deeply personal and broadly human issue for them.  From my experience, this happens the most fluidly and meaningfully in a classroom where we can all interact and where organic discussions can develop (this may even be a topic for a future blog).  Though each class has its distinct personality, here’s to hoping that this semester sparks critical thinking and a new environmental ethic for my students.  I will keep you posted….

Lessons in Community-Based Conservation from Africa

The WRDC is pleased to introduce Ed Meyer as one of our bloggers. Mr. Meyer oversaw the Utah Governor’s rural economic development programs for 25 years before retiring to Kanab, UT. Currently he contracts with Southern Utah University to provide entrepreneur support in Kane County. He runs his own consulting firm dealing with rural incentives, serves on the Kanab City Council, and serves on the board of a local non-profit that promotes events that incorporate education, business and the arts.

Without further ado, here’s Ed.

Last fall a marvelous film called “Milking the Rhino” was screened in Kanab as part of the Southern Utah Documentary Film Festival.  After the film, I had the honor of facilitating a discussion with the film’s co-producer Jeanne McGill.  Though the film is about Africa’s Himba Tribe in Namibia and the Maasai Tribe in Kenya, the land management model they are using is one we should consider here in the American West.

First let me set the stage by explaining that the Himba and Maasai have traditionally survived largely through cattle ranching.  Though they raise their cattle in different ways for different purposes, these African tribes share a common economic bond with the West’s cattlemen.  They also face a similar challenge in that they have traditionally been denied access to adjacent lands.  In their case, these lands have been locked up in game reserves patrolled by armed guards.  Historically these guards have shot tribesmen who touch one foot inside the reserves.  Though the situation in the American West is certainly not as dramatic, ranchers are regularly being forced from public lands, largely due to environmental challenges. Another similarity is that the Himba and Maasai have often lost livestock to lions and other predators that are protected inside the reserves.  Certainly this draws a comparison to issues in the American West such as the reintroduction of the wolf and other predatory species.

In recent years, the governments of Namibia and Kenya have recognized that the ongoing conflicts with tribal cattlemen are counterproductive.  They have also realized the tremendous market for eco-tourism and the potential value this new economic opportunity could provide for the Himba and Maasai.  In order to take advantage of this opportunity, they have implemented a management tool we might consider in the American West called community-based conservation.

What the African governments have done is create conservation districts incorporating the lands within the traditional game reserves and allowed the local tribesmen to make management decisions.  Typically these decisions might address issues like whether predators that threaten the cattle should be relocated for the benefit of eco-tourists or whether they need to be destroyed, perhaps by a hunter willing to pay a premium.  Another example was whether portions of the game reserve that had previously been off limits for cattle grazing should be opened during times of drought.  The film’s title “Milking the Rhino” comes from the decision tribesmen were forced to make when white rhinos were tramping fields and destroying crops.  The tribesmen recognized that the white rhino was one of the most popular animals for the ecotourist and decided to relocate it in hopes of “milking the rhino” for tourist dollars.   While the jury is still out regarding how effective these community-based conservation districts will be, it is significant that each tribe now has a new eco-tourism lodge created through collaboration with professional managers.  The lodges provide jobs for natives and the profits are shared with the tribes.  Profits are negotiated with the tribes and, if the managers can’t come to an agreement, the tribe has the authority to order them from the land.

I’d like to ask the readers of this blog whether they can share examples of how a similar model has been tried in the American West.  Before you answer, let me clarify my request.  I’m not looking for examples where the federal government has created advisory groups to provide input or even grassroots projects the federal government allows to occur because they are consistent with their management plan.  What I am looking for are examples where the federal government has actually turned management of federal lands over to groups of local stakeholders to manage for some purpose.

I understand that there are reasons it would be difficult to implement community-based conservation in the American West.  I expect to hear all kinds of reasons why it can’t be done.  Quite honestly, I’m tired of hearing why things can’t be done.  What I hope to see are examples where something similar is being done and suggestions of what might have to occur to make it happen given our unique public lands models.

If you would like to learn more about the Himba, the Maasai and community-based conservation, I encourage you to visit http://MilkingTheRhino.org.  A related site is www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/milk.html where you can download an outstanding study guide based on the video.  Finally, if you would like Jeanne McGill to speak at an event, please email me at ed@kekanab.com and I can provide contact information.

Images used with permission granted by the filmmaker.

From a Michigan Farm to the Last Frontier

Greetings to new and long-time friends and acquaintances,

I’m excited that the folks at Western Rural Development Center (WRDC) invited me to share my thoughts and ideas in a regular monthly blog. Since many readers won’t know me I’ll start with a brief introduction that I hope will help position me as someone who has something meaningful (and worth reading) to say about rural communities. I was born in rural Michigan and raised on a small farm. I attended a one-room schoolhouse and had the same teacher for kindergarten through second grade. Fortunately I liked Mrs. Horten and I think she was a really good teacher. Mrs. Horten returned to teach us again when we reached sixth grade . . . did she REALLY like our cohort so much that she wanted one more teaching experience with us? In seventh grade my 18 classmates and I were bussed about an hour from our farming community across town to help desegregate an inner-city school in Lansing. We were pulled from our rural homogeneous farming community and bussed to a school where the majority of students were urban Latino and Black youths – although neither of those terms was common back then, and this language certainly wasn’t what I heard in the halls and on the school grounds! The two-year experience substantially supplemented the education we received in the classroom. We each lived and experienced desegregation in a very personal way.

The long bus ride every morning also meant getting up very early since I milked our three cows before school! I’ve always explained that it was this chore that resulted in my love for the early hours.  (I’m still an early riser, often awake at 4:00 AM.) Ninth grade brought another big change – I attended high school closer to home, surrounded by working farms, and graduated in a class of 69 students – a small fraction of the students that had been in my inner-city junior high!

After graduation I attended a small private college in rural Olivet Michigan for two years, mostly on athletic scholarships thanks to Title IX. The passage and implementation of Title IX, much like desegregation, was an event and movement far larger than me but both had significant direct effects in framing my life at a young age. After a short “time-out” I transferred to the University of Michigan and after two years of classes graduated from the School of Natural Resources. While attending college I worked during the summers as a Michigan state park ranger, and it was here that my professional interest in recreation, parks, tourism and special landscapes took root. After completing my Bachelor’s degree I moved to Alaska and working as a seasonal park ranger, this time with Alaska State Parks. I spent 7 years in Haines – a community of around 1200 residents. During the “off-season” I frequently worked as a substitute teacher in the local schools. I have great stories of my time in Haines – building two cabins, and living without running water or electricity for seven years. I hope to weave some of these stories into future blogs.

After being promoted to regional manager, in 1983 my job was moved to Juneau, Alaska’s capital . With the exception of Juneau, Southeast Alaska communities are all small and rural with no other community (there are 31) having more that 9,000 residents. Only three of the 31 communities have road access. The remainder can only be accessed by water and air and only a few of them have road access to another community. My home in Juneau lies within the Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest national forest at 17 million acres. Eighty percent of the land in Alaska’s panhandle, as the Southeast Region also is known, is within the national forest, the world’s largest temperate rainforest.

Like many communities across the western United States, resource extraction activities, including timber harvesting and processing and mining, are important to the economies of Southeast Alaska communities. Tourism and commercial and charter sport fishing are important for several communities. For example Juneau hosts approximately one million cruise ship visitors from May through September every year (TravelJuneau.com). Each of these economic activities generates controversy that cycles in and out of the news over time.

Oops, I got carried away with introducing Southeast Alaska and forgot to finish MY story. In 1989 I quit my job with the State of Alaska and moved to Seattle. A big change for a small town girl! I had been accepted into the PhD program at the University of Washington, College of Forestry. I immediately jumped into my first “research” study exploring the potential social effects of off-shore oil and gas development off of the coast of Washington and Oregon. I spent an enjoyable summer learning how to design research questions and studies, conduct interviews, and develop surveys. I traveled from Forks, Washington to Bandon, Oregon interviewing local residents and visitors about the importance and value of the area to them. This experience evolved into a life-long interest and professional research focus on “sense of place” and attachment to special places. The oil and gas study was abandoned and that’s a story for another time.

When “my” study was cancelled I was fortunate to arrange work with the Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station (PNW), Seattle Forestry Sciences Laboratory, working on a social science research team called the People and Natural Resources Program. Over the past 20 years (my 20 year anniversary is this month!) my research topics have included recreation, tourism, public participation, resource planning, sense of place and place attachment, community resilience and community capacity, community wildfire mitigation and preparedness, volunteering, partnerships and collaboration, and a variety of other topics. (Published research papers are available at Treesearch by typing “kruger” into the Author box, or searching on Google.) While working full time for PNW I completed my program at the University of Washington in 1996 (I’ll write more about my dissertation research experience in a future blog) and, finding that there was plenty more to learn, I enrolled in a Master’s Degree program in Whole System Design and Organization System Renewal at Antioch University in Seattle. I finished my Antioch program in the summer of 2003 and moved back to Juneau later that year.

Since returning to Juneau I have enjoyed working with fellow PNW employees at the Juneau Forestry Sciences Laboratory, Alaska Region Forest Service employees, communities on the Tongass and the Chugach National Forests, several State and Federal agencies, and Alaska Native communities and organizations. I have many stories to share and lessons I’ve learned that I hope will provide a springboard for our virtual discussion!

In closing, my current passion is individual and community health and wellness. I have many ideas for projects that engage community organizations and groups in developing healthier communities and research studies that demonstrate the importance and value of spending time outdoors and being in nature. As individuals I think we can each benefit from information that helps us make more informed personal choices and our decision makers need better information in order to make informed decisions on our behalf. If you haven’t read the September 2010 issue of Rural Connections (Volume 5, Issue 1 – 10MB PDF) please take time to read it now.

In closing, welcome to 2011! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I look forward to hearing from you and continuing our conversation over the coming year.

Linda Kruger is a social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station in Juneau, Alaska.

Energy Regulations and Rural Communities

As I currently live, eat, and breathe this thing called a dissertation, you seem to be regularly subjected to thoughts and tangents about it as well.  I appreciate you indulging me, particularly because so many of you have some very real stake in rural communities and their social, economic, and environmental well-being and development.   I view this blog, in part, as a unique opportunity to share my experiences with you and, if luck allows, learn from your own stories and histories in the field and academy.

This includes your experiences with perceptions of regulations and their social repercussions in the rural West.  Yes, I uttered that dreaded word – regulations.  This word has endless connotations, the tone of which typically depends upon one’s political persuasion, occupation, or even the region of the country in which one lives.  Out West, with our many public lands and extraction-based industries, it seems the word can inspire more ambivalence than in other regions.  At least, I find this to be the case in the area of Colorado where I’m conducting my research – Montrose County, in southwestern Colorado.  As many of you know, this part of the state is famous for its unparalleled vistas, rugged terrain, and isolated pockets of people often eeking out a living.  Many times, people in these Western communities weather boom-and-bust economies based on coal, natural gas, or other natural resources and, in bust times, must use their ingenuity and tight-knit relationships with others to make a living from month to month.  This appears to be the case particularly over the last couple years, as the rest of the nation suffers under the weight of a seemingly permanent economic recession.  In these communities, I’m finding that when it comes to uranium mining and milling, there emerge a couple distinct narratives regarding related regulations and, importantly, affiliated technologies.

Specifically, as I talk to area residents, there have emerged two distinct groups emerge, with drastically different worldviews.   One camp – mainly in the communities immediately surrounding the proposed uranium mill site – supports the mill’s construction, has fierce faith in the mill’s ability to create jobs and reinvigorate local economies, AND has abundant faith in regulations and the enforcement capabilities of Energy Fuels, Inc. and various state agencies.  The other ‘camp’ – found mainly in communities further away from the proposed mill site in former mining towns-turned tourist meccas like Telluride – oppose the mill’s construction, contest its job-creating abilities, and voice deep skepticism about health, safety, and environmental regulations and their enforcement.

I imagine that many of you have seen similar divisiveness emerge in rural communities in which you’ve worked, studied and perhaps in which you’ve lived.   I find myself selfishly hoping that you have been as perplexed and divided yourselves as I have been in attempting to analyze the social and other outcomes of these two worldviews colliding.  As a “good researcher,” I strive to genuinely see and experience both worldviews as I work to understand these two camps and what their positions may mean for land-use and energy policy.  The first camp argues that the mill’s corporate owners will need to fulfill their health and safety obligations as they will be under intense public scrutiny, and will have elite technology with which to accomplish this task.  I can see the legitimacy of this argument.  Equally compelling, however, the second camp points to high-profile extraction cases in which regulations and self-monitoring seem to have failed – with the recent BP Deep Horizon oil spill the most frequently-mentioned case.

What have your experiences have been in the field, particularly if you’ve worked in rural communities enmeshed in extraction- or natural resource-based economies?  Where states are charged with overseeing most regulations – as is the case with Colorado, an Agreement State, and uranium and nuclear commodity regulations – I wonder if we see different outcomes or public perceptions than we do in states where federal agencies retain that ultimate role.  I also wonder if we find that this varies with type of ownership of such industries, whether they are public or private.  What have your experiences been?  What are your observations of on-the-ground regulatory enforcement?

Poised to reshape our energy policy, the west’s rural communities often, and again, become the stage on which land-use, environmental and economic justice battles are fought.  What this means in terms of energy policy, rural community well-being, and related social movements remains to be seen, of course.  But we find ourselves in a unique position, as scholars and practitioners of rural development, to begin recording this energy transition.  I invite you to share your experiences of community-level social movements, response to regulations, or other land-use issues.

Steph: Surveys, Surveys, and More Surveys

In the weeks since we were last in touch, surveys have taken over my life. As I mentioned in my last post, I am currently completing my dissertation in environmental sociology. The last phase of large-scale data collection involves surveying residents in four communities surrounding the first proposed uranium mill in the U.S. in 25 years, sited in the Paradox Valley of southwestern Colorado. All of my favorite topics in one project: energy issues, social justice, and good, old-fashioned social science research. In this phase of data collection, I’ve learned just how complex the process of thorough surveying can be. I have also realized how necessary and grounding it is to get into the communities in which we distribute questionnaires, particularly for those of us involved in researching rural issues.

Over the last several months, my to-do list has looked something like this: create survey instrument. Give it to major professor for review – and re-create survey instrument. Submit instrument to IRB for approval – and re-create survey instrument again. Compile sampling frames. Print surveys, labels, envelopes. Buy hundreds of dollars in postage. Stuff hundreds of envelopes. Rejoice at returned, completed surveys.

Many of us know these are the basic steps of conducting a survey. Listed out, they appear tidy, as if they can be checked off a grand surveying to-do list. But this, my friends, is a deceptive sort of tidiness. That said, I operated under this assumption of neatly-penned to-do lists until I just couldn’t lie to myself any longer. I quickly learned just how messy it is to write questions that are both engaging to the potential respondent and informative for the social scientist. I learned how challenging it is to create an organization that flows, to anticipate how people may process information, and to write accessible questions about inaccessible sociological theories. I learned that acquiring addresses for rural residents presents unique barriers, requiring persistence and ingenuity. Above all, I learned the frustrations of the overlooked typo. The seemingly innocuous typo that ends up in the key question, of course; the one that wakes you up at 5:30 a.m. and eventually compels you to persuade your patient husband into spending hours of time with a staple remover and White-Out.

For me, however, the ultimate lesson of this decidedly messy, unpredictable, and exciting process is the importance of getting on the ground in the communities we research, survey, observe. Before constructing my survey instrument, I visited communities potentially impacted by the proposed uranium mill. I found it immensely valuable to observe daily life in communities where residents largely support the mill’s construction versus lifestyles in towns where residents largely oppose the mill.

On my first visit, I ate at the main local diner, drank a beer at one of the local bars, and tried to strike up conversation with anyone who looked my way. Not only did this allow me to meet some friendly people, it let me learn what mattered to community members, how they perceived the controversial permitting decisions, and what it might be like to live – and try to make a living – in one of the most remote pockets of the continental U.S.

The knowledge I gathered through casual encounters such as these led to tens of interviews with people and, eventually, a survey instrument to which people responded. Given the rurality of the communities I’m studying, it turns out that my physical presence and conversations with residents made my survey instrument much more salient and real to many of them, so I’ve been told, people who have grown skeptical of surveys, state institutions, and academics. Instead of an anonymous surveyor, they had a face and perhaps a conversation to put with the questionnaire that arrived in the mail. This connection, I learned, may be more valuable than many of the methodological tools we learn as social scientists. In an era of plummeting response rates, I’m realizing that a little field work can go a long way in creating connections to communities we study, laying foundations for social exchange – even on a tight, graduate student budget.

Stephanie Malin is a PhD candidate in Environmental Sociology at Utah State University. You can read her musings about life as a doctoral student here each month.