Conflicting values associated with renewable versus non-renewable resource extraction in Appalachia
Historically, the Appalachian economy is based on resource extraction, such as coal mining, timber, and medicinal plant harvest. Surface mining degrades forest habitat, and it is reducing the cultural importance of harvest. The premier medicinal plant in Appalachia is the internationally valuable herb, American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius L.). While medicinal plant harvest is potentially sustainable, some harvesting practices can be detrimental to the performance of this long-lived herb. Little is known about how individuals in West Virginia view the relationship between surface mining and ginseng harvest, if they prioritize conservation, and if harvesters engage in sustainable harvesting practices. In order to study this relationship, we used a purposeful, community-based participatory research methodology. As Appalachian communities, and especially ginseng harvesters, are considered distrustful of outsiders, we used students in the after school science program of Health Science and Technology Academy (HSTA) to distribute surveys throughout West Virginia to people based on two sample frames: harvesters and non-harvesters. Questions in the surveys were organized into five concepts central to our objectives. Reliability of survey data was analyzed with Cronbach’s alpha statistic, and comparisons between harvesters and the community at large were made using likelihood-ratio χ2 or ANOVA’s, as appropriate for the question type.
As expected, harvesters had greater knowledge about ginseng, and a stronger positive opinion about conservation, as compared to non-harvesters. However, there is an apparent disconnect between environmental beliefs and actions in regards to harvest. Roughly 83% of harvesters surveyed admitted to illegal and detrimental harvesting activities, yet as a group, they were far more likely to advocate for ginseng conservation. Surface mining support did not vary among sample frames, and both groups had the same level of trust of environmental experts. Harvesters were more likely to trust scientists to be honest, and they were less likely to appreciate the forest only for economic reasons. Addressing how we can help empower individuals to translate beliefs into action will help ensure ginseng harvest remains a sustainable resource for Appalachia. This research has the potential to aid in the development of effective environmental education and conservation outreach regarding medicinal plant harvest.