Cover Story

"What the forest managers care about is that I can help them understand what people's attitudes, values and behaviors are, how to communicate with publics and how to encourage environmentally responsible actions," says Dr. Patricia L. Winter.

Forest Service psychologist promotes the inclusion of human dimensions in forest management.

Since 1992, Patricia L. Winter, PhD, has worked for the USDA Forest Service, where she conducts applied psychological research on diversity, conflict and environmental attitudes and behaviors, and provides social science information to natural resource managers as they strive to protect the nation's forests and maximize people's ability to enjoy them.

As one of the few social scientists in the Forest Service's research branch, she relies heavily on the methodological and statistical skills and the knowledge of organizational behavior and social and environmental psychology gained in her training as a psychologist.

"What the forest managers care about is that I can help them understand what people's attitudes, values and behaviors are, how to communicate with publics and how to encourage environmentally responsible actions."

Based in Riverside, Calif., Winter is a research social scientist with the Wildland Recreation and Urban Cultures unit of the Pacific Southwest Research Station. The unit was developed in response to rapid changes in recreational patterns in the four southern California National Forests. Reaching from Monterey to San Diego, the Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres and San Bernardino forests were seeing dramatic increases in both the number and diversity of users. The result was a mismatch between how the forests were being used and traditional management approaches.

Enter a social science unit, whose main focus is recreation and diversity. In addition to exploring changing use patterns, the research team looks at issues related to communication, barriers and conflict, and people's behaviors, values and attitudes about natural resources.

Winter has been exploring the psychological processes behind public judgments of trust in the Forest Service with psychologist George T. Cvetkovich, PhD. Together they have found that while general trust is high, trust in specific contexts varies. Measured in terms of shared values, goals, thoughts and direction, trust is helping to predict how publics react to management interventions and agency plans.

In two recent studies with psychologist Amy Marcus-Newhall, PhD, laboratory research based on nominal groups addressing conflict and conflict resolution has been tried with real world groups. The groups examined have been hikers on the San Gorgonio Wilderness, and hikers and bikers using areas throughout southern California. Their newest findings suggest that groups working on tasks that cut across their group identities, paired with outgroup members, begin to see outgroup members in a more positive light, diminishing some of the mechanisms of conflict and prejudice. This line of research is important to the Forest Service since the agency needs to bring together groups who sometimes have strong conflicting values, to help address resource issues.

Some of Winter's work ventures off Forest Service lands. For example, she and psychologist Robert B. Cialdini, PhD, collaborated on a project at Arizona's Petrified Forest. Concerned about the theft of petrified wood, the pair studied what kinds of signs were most effective at dissuading would-be thieves. To find out, they planted pieces of petrified wood along trails, tried out various signs, and assessed theft rates for each condition. They discovered that negatively worded commands were the most effective. Now Winter hopes to replicate the study in California as she explores the best way to keep people from trespassing on areas that are closed to protect the habitat of threatened and endangered species.

One of Winter's latest projects is to gather data the Forest Service will use in its revision of the management plans for the four southern California forests. She and another unit scientist are gathering sociodemographic information focused on the26 counties surrounding these four forests, home to a majority of Californians. They're reviewing numerous data sources to characterize population characteristics and quality of life in the region, as well as population projections. What they've already found suggests that the population will dramatically increase in the area, and that it will be increasingly ethnically and racially diverse. In addition, the age structure of the population will be changing.

These changes are important to the Forest Service because they will require adjustments in how people are served. For example, groups of color tend to rely heavier on informal communication networks linked to their communities, or on their own ethnic media, than on mass media. Cultural preferences also vary for recreational opportunities, such as Latinos preferring more developed areas than Anglos. Latinos typically go to parks in larger groups with extended family and friends and tend to prefer more group-like settings for their picnicking experience than what is usually found in Forest Service managed areas.

"To serve our customers better, its important to understand these variations and provide a suite of opportunities," says Winter.