Politicians and community leaders may want to pay heed to the results of a newly released Jacksonville University poll in which conventional sentiments that the St. Johns River is the area's lifeblood and greatest asset aren't reflected in public attitudes.
Asked to name the most important asset to the region, only 28 percent of metro area respondents named the St. Johns River. Nearly two-thirds put Navy bases at the top. Nearly half didn't see a direct connection between their personal actions and the river's health.
"Most people don't get to use or enjoy the river, and that can affect their attitudes about the river's role as a generator of income and jobs," said Dr. Ray Oldakowski, professor of geography and director of the JU Social Science Research Center, whose students conducted the survey.
The poll released Wednesday is a comprehensive survey asking northeast Florida and central Florida residents their attitudes about the St. Johns River, Oldakowski said.
"Many people drive over the river, but most don't get the opportunity to enjoy it, and that may contribute to these feelings," he said.
That creates obstacles for its future health, said Dr. Quinton White, executive director of JU's Marine Science Research Institute.
"There's a disconnect. If you want people to protect the river, then they have to value it in the first place," he said. "It's a call to action for our government and agencies to do more to help shift attitudes."
The poll was conducted last fall and then analyzed by JU faculty and students. It has a margin of error of +/- 5 percentage points. Findings were broken out between Jacksonville Metropolitan Area residents (Duval, Clay and St. Johns counties) and residents south of the Jacksonville Metropolitan area (Putnam, Volusia, Seminole and Brevard counties).
Among key findings of metro area residents:
- About 70 percent never fish the river, two-thirds don't boat it and 90 percent don't swim in it.
- More than half feel they don't know enough about how to safeguard the river, and 45 percent don't see a direct connection between their personal actions and the river's health.
- Just two percent see protecting the environment as the biggest challenge facing the local community, compared to 58 percent who see job creation as the biggest hurdle, followed by 20 percent who view reducing crime as the biggest problem.
The importance of the river and feelings about how personal behavior affects it were even lower among residents farther south of Jacksonville.
"Our river is so important to this area, but that is not really the perception of the overall public," White said. "They don't think that their actions affect the health of the river. Those kinds of perceptions affect how much they want to support it."
The findings underscore the need to create more awareness of the St. Johns River's health and its value to northeast Florida, White said.
"There's a need for education about the importance of the river ecologically, and how it contributes to the economy as well."