This study was conducted by the Envision the James initiative partners in order to explore what topics were of most interest to those living within the James River watershed. Ultimately, the results of this survey will inform future surveys, the watershed’s collective vision, and enhancement approaches within the James River watershed.
The survey was administered both at community meetings and through a web-based survey instrument, totaling 522 survey respondents (although not all completed it). Respondents comprised a fairly representative cross-cut of the population, with nearly 50/50 male/female respondents and a range of age groups.
The survey revealed that respondents were most interested in in the middle James, which stretches from Lynchburg to Richmond, and the lower James, from Richmond to the Chesapeake Bay (42.3% and 33.53% of respondents, respectively). However, when asked to be more specific about which tributaries were of interest, respondents did not appear to have a strong opinion. This suggests that respondents may have primarily resided within the main James River corridor, or that they associate with the James River at large, and not with a particular tributary. Regardless of their area of interest, over 85% of respondents strongly agreed that the James River is a key asset to their community.
The survey identified several areas of importance to residents within the watershed, including recreation and river access, wildlife habitat, tourism, and water quality (Figure 1). Brief results of these themes follow.
Respondents identified recreation and river access as an important benefit of the James River, both in terms of personal recreation opportunities and as an important source of outdoor recreation opportunities for their communities. In particular, hiking and biking, paddling, and wildlife watching were, by far, the most popular river-related activities identified by respondents. This is consistent with results from a question regarding general topics of interest to respondents, to which recreation and river access and wildlife habitats were among those of most interest. Additionally, about 80% of respondents either strongly agreed or agreed that a system of access point and camping options along the entire River is needed. However, respondents did not seem particularly concerned with inadequate recreation facilities or river access (only about 40% of respondents), nor did they think that greater river access would help their communities to connect with the James (only about 12% of respondents). This is an interesting inconsistency that perhaps reflects a general level of satisfaction with available recreation opportunities (or incomplete knowledge of opportunities). Also, over 50% of respondents were over the age of 45; therefore, perhaps they do not see recreation as a pressing community need, which would then be reflected in the survey.
Wildlife habitat was consistently a topic of importance to respondents. It was the third most important topic to respondents (about 75% of respondents; Figure 1), and wildlife habitat loss and wildlife population decline were the third and fourth most concerning topics to respondents (about 65% and 50%, respectively). Wildlife habitat was also recognized as conservation (about 84% of respondents; Figure 2) and restoration (about 61% of respondents; Figure 3) targets along the James. In fact, over 85% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that more wildlife habitat conservation is needed along the James River. Overwhelmingly (over 75%), respondents cited that additional wildlife enhancement efforts should occur on both publicly owned lands and on private lands in consultation with landowners.
The survey also sought to elicit opinions regarding tourism potential along the James River – a topic on which respondents seemed to have mixed feelings. While almost 50% of respondents strongly agreed that the James River is a strong draw to their area, river-related tourism was the topic of least interest to respondents (only about 42%). Over 50% of respondents strongly agreed that their community would benefit from a regional effort to promote the entire James River for tourism and recreation; yet only about 40% of respondents strongly agreed that their area should be promoted for greater tourism. Perhaps respondents are unaware of the tourism potential in their area of the James watershed, or they may believe that most people come to the James for recreation, rather than for river-related tourism. Such beliefs may explain the somewhat contradictory results regarding tourism.
Finally, water quality was identified as a topic of great interest and concern (over 85% of respondents selected water quality for both questions), and this interest held consistent throughout the survey. For example, when asked to identify restoration needs along the James, the largest percentage of respondents (over 87%; Figure 3) identified streams with poor water quality. This was closely followed by streams with no forested buffer (about 75%; Figure 3), which may reflect knowledge of the relationship between buffers and water quality. The second most concerning topic to respondents was suburban sprawl and development, which may also reflect knowledge of the connection between development, impervious surfaces, and nutrient runoff. The Chesapeake Bay has had a very aggressive water quality campaign in the past few decades; therefore, it is not surprising that respondents would believe water quality is an important issue. Water quality is not explicitly identified as one of the themes of the Envision the James vision because this important topic is implicit in and complementary to all the themes. Responsible development, conservation and restoration, and habitat preservation will all lead to improved water quality.
When asked which entities should be involved in enhancing these areas of interest (particularly in expanding recreational trails and in the conservation and restoration of river related resources and wildlife habitat), respondents agreed that local governments, state governments, and non-profit organizations were responsible (Figure 4). Respondents consistently cited the federal government as the last entity they wanted involved in enhancing these aspects of the James. When asked what would most help their community to protect and benefit from the James, the greatest percentage of respondents chose ‘coordination and leadership for local river-related efforts.’ This reinforces the general theme that respondents want to see river-related efforts coordinated by and originating at the local level, through communities, governments, and non-profits.