7 Jul

Article Preview: Geographic Literacy Enhancing Natural Resource Management

A new study by researchers with the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences at Oregon State University in geographic literacy is the largest of its kind and seeks to understand the link between geographic literacy and natural resource management.

The study explores the Salish Sea, which expands from British Columbia, Canada, to Washington State, and how the community’s geographic literacy on the Salish Sea impacts the capabilities of effective natural resource management.

Read on for a preview of the study by David J. Trimbach, Joseph K. Gaydos, and Kelly Biedenweg.

What is the main purpose of your study? 

The purpose of our study is to demonstrate the potential role of geographic literacy within natural resource management and ecosystem recovery. Using the transboundary Salish Sea region as a case study, we conducted an assessment of residents’ geographic literacy, with an emphasis on place names. Our study conceptualized geographic literacy as an element of sense of place and potential predictor of responses to natural resource management (actions/decisions).  Our study gauged Washington and British Columbia residents’ geographic literacy (or lack thereof) of the region and overall illustrated that residents were largely unfamiliar with the Salish Sea as a place name. This study also illustrated that more coordinated efforts are needed in order to foster the use of a shared place name (Salish Sea) and people-place connection to enhance geographic literacy and natural resource management in the transboundary region/ecosystem.

What are the practical, day to day, implications of your study? 

Place names and geographic literacy at first glance seem like benign research topics; however, both have innumerable implications for natural resource management or ecosystem recovery efforts. First, place names, can be highly contentious, subject to change, and reflect peoples’ senses of place or place-based connections and meanings. As such place names and a shared knowledge or use of them can influence communications, education, outreach, stewardship, and knowledge or even responses to place-based problems. For example, if natural resource managers or policy-makers are using different names for the same body of water or ecosystem, residents may not know, feel connected, or have a response to their respective actions or decisions. Second, geographic literacy varies and matters, as people with high literacy may be more aware or may easily grasp managers’ or policy-makers’ (or even journalists’) communications, actions, or decisions. In our case, assessing residents’ geographic literacy directly informs a transboundary campaign led by the SeaDoc Society (UC Davis) aimed at increasing awareness and connection to the Salish Sea as a shared ecosystem.


Figure 3 from the study, geographic literacy question responses.

How does your study relate to other work on the subject?

Our project broadly builds upon the growing fields of human-environment interactions (human geography), human dimensions of natural resource management, and conservation social sciences, by illustrating how social science constructs (e.g., geographic literacy or sense place) can benefit and add value to natural resource management efforts and research. This study also builds upon geographic literacy or geoliteracy work, which is often promoted by geographic associations (like AGS or National Geographic Society) or in educational programs. While geographic literacy research has been conducted, such research remains largely relegated to studies of geographic education (or education more broadly). This study seeks to illustrate an applied usage of geographic literacy to inform broader management, planning, and policy.

What are two or three interesting findings that come from your study? 

Our findings demonstrate that transboundary residents (WA and BC) are largely unfamiliar with the Salish Sea as a place name. This is likely the result of the Salish Sea being a relatively new official name of the transboundary marine ecosystem/waterbody and the continued use of local or inconsistent names for the same body of water. Our findings also highlight (statistically) that place of residence matters when it comes to geographic literacy and place name usage. Place of residence was the primary factor that informed respondents’ responses to the geographic literacy survey questions. Overall, BC residents are more familiar than WA residents with the Salish Sea.

What might be some of the theoretical implications of this study? 

Our study highlights that geographic literacy contributes and is an aspect of people-place relationships and peoples’ senses of place. Our study also brings to the fore a wider application of geographic literacy and its potential benefits to environmental or natural resource management scholarship or efforts. Additionally, our study demonstrates the role of place (place of residence and the nuances of place-based communities, education, and everyday life) on geographic literacy.

How does your research help us think about Geography? 

Our research helps us think about geography, because people do think spatially or have some level of geographic literacy, with lots of variations. Our research makes that linkage clear and demonstrates the potential role or application of geographic literacy, and geography more broadly, within environmental and natural resource management. Geographic literacy tends to be thought of as a subject of K-12 education; however, geographic literacy can be explored in a wide range of contexts, as it likely influences or impacts more than we think and expect, like seemingly unrelated natural resource management decisions or actions, and residents’ responses to them.

The study, published in Society & Natural Resources, is open access and available to read here