Perception of Naturalness in a Hybrid Landscape: A Case Study of Citizens Engaged in Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation
Ferrier, Elaine Allison
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Conservation in Canada is increasingly driven by land use planning processes. Approaches to governing nature conservation have shifted dramatically from protecting isolated pristine areas to greater attention to the remaining fragments of greenspace in urban, semi-urban and rural areas. The ways that societies govern and use nature are always changing, and these physical management actions are connected to deeply rooted cultural norms and values about the ideal relationship between humans and nature. In the land use planning approach to conservation, citizens and governments find value and construct meaning for remaining nature rather than beginning with normative considerations of what is most worthy of protection. At the root of this conservation planning trend is a growing appreciation for hybrid nature that is valued as natural in spite of the past or present influences upon it. This represents a dramatic shift from the traditional values involved in North American nature conservation, where nature was most valued for its perceived separation from human influence and protected to maintain its untouched qualities. In light of these ideological shifts in the ways that Canadians value and in turn manage nature, is there a corresponding change in the ways that conservation activists perceive environmental value and evaluate naturalness? An increasing number of studies demonstrate that public valuation of nature is not limited to pristine environments: even highly disturbed environments can be valued as natural and are not perceived as a form of lesser nature. Conceptions of what is natural and what is not are highly subjective and variable; in particular, the body of work on the social dimensions of both invasive species and ecological restoration demonstrates the ways in which people construct naturalness in accord with their values and cultural context. By exploring the extent to which people perceive invasive species as reducing naturalness and how ecological restoration is perceived to restore it, these subjects serve as excellent conceptual lenses for exploring constructions of nature. This study explores the subtle variations in environmental values and perception of naturalness among a study population who self-identify as pursuing the same goal: ensuring the continued protection of the Oak Ridges Moraine. The Moraine is a partly urbanized landform in southern Ontario that is situated within a complex hybrid socio-ecological landscape. It is also the subject of an active and high profile conservation movement that has spanned over 40 years. Using a combination of interviews and Q Method, this study explored how citizens engaged in Oak Ridges Moraine conservation perceive both the current and ideal state of naturalness on the Moraine, with specific emphasis on how the discourses these citizens use to frame the Moraine invoke the concept of naturalness Findings from this study reveal that Moraine activists represent a conservation paradox: they value the natural, non-human qualities of the landform, yet at the same time identify the Moraine as a hybrid landscape with both social and ecological qualities. In particular, respondents indicated a strong interest in naturalness in the context of invasive species and ecological restoration, yet at the same time identified the naturalness of the Moraine to be a lesser priority in the face of urban development pressures. In this way, citizens engaged in Moraine conservation respond to the hybrid quality of the Moraine landscape by moving beyond the binary distinction between nature and society, situating themselves as both apart from and a part of the landscape at the same time. This finding demonstrates how values for conserving nature are affected by hybridity between social and ecological systems, and suggests how embracing the paradox of hybrid nature can contribute to understanding and managing complex socio-ecological systems.