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The problem with surveys…

We remember when we first started following the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission, they were discussing an update to the General Plan. The General Plan guides what development should be allowed. Repeatedly, a survey from a few years before, where a hundred residents showed up, and completed some sort of activity, that then ranked the top priorities, was used (in part) to guide the discussion. We had a hard time believing the information was being used… A self selected group, doing some exercise that ranked priorities, but that few (if any people) knew actually how it was derived, from a couple years before was helping to make decisions.

And that’s why we frankly hate government surveys. You never know how (or when) they are going to be used.

Today we stumbled upon a survey that was linked from the Summit County website entitled, “We want to know your preferences and priorities regarding public land management within Summit County.” Fair enough, we use public land when we camp and hike (and many other times) so we thought we should give our opinion, and it reminded us of why we hate these things. What were the questions?


Question 1: Rank these public land resource values in your preferred order of importance, highest to lowest, with 1 being the highest importance. The options were things like protecting water quality, protecting natural resources, etc. So, that one made sense.

Question 2: On a scale of 1 to 10, how high of a priority do you feel the following resource topics are for county resource management planning? This is where it started to go off the rails. The answers were things like mining, land use, land access, air quality, wilderness, recreation & tourism, etc. If we answer that recreation & tourism is a high priority, do we mean that we want more recreation & tourism or do we mean that we want it managed more effectively? If we say wilderness is a top priority for county resource planning, does that mean that we want the county to take federal lands back and manage them or that we need to protect our wilderness more? It’s confusing.

Question 3: Pick your top 5 resource priorities. There is then a list of things: mining, land use, land access, recreation & tourism, noxious weeds, etc. Of course, some of these are obvious. If you pick noxious weeds as your top choice, you want the county to manage weeds better. If you choose recreation and tourism, what does that mean? We guess that you want the county make it a priority to do something related to recreation & tourism. If you’re for an expansion of economic development in Summit County your understanding of that question is likely diametrically opposed to someone who thinks development of Park City should have stopped in 1985. Bad questions.

We could continue with the other 8 questions (some are better than others) but the point is that good surveys are tough to do. Another point is that our local governments (Park City, Summit County, PCSD) shouldn’t factor in results from anything less than a good survey. If the survey was from Survey Monkey (on the internet), you might as well go to the Hogle Zoo and find your answer.

Finally, if a good survey has been done, and the results are guiding local governments, BUT THE SITUATION CHANGES, the results of that survey should no longer be valid. Let’s say that a survey was done that said we need more ice rinks. So a bond is passed to build another ice rink; however, someone in Wasatch County announces they are building a skating facility and we know that a huge percentage of our current ice rink’s users are from Heber, do we still need to build an ice rink? It should factor in heavily and results of any survey saying we need more ice is likely is much less valid

Likewise, maybe a survey was done 3 years ago that says that we need more aquatic facilities. Then, perhaps,the Basin Rec decides that they will add swimming lanes to the field house. That original survey’s conclusion is no longer necessarily valid for other decisions. If the county, city, and Basin Rec decide to jointly build another field house, should it include swimming? Maybe or maybe not… but since swimming is now planned for the old field house, the results from a survey done before the facts on the ground changed, aren’t valid.

Now, people may say results of a bad survey are better than nothing. “At least we know what some people are thinking” would be the claim. We completely disagree. Most of our local, government surveys involve a zero sum game. There is only so much money to go around.

We shouldn’t rely on the results of some random survey or meeting to guide our local governments. We especially shouldn’t allow a survey with questions that could be interpreted in a number of ways to guide us. The survey we saw today reminded us of that. If a crowd gathered in 2009 and was asked “Due to the economic crisis should we do anything and everything possible to spur development around Park City?” Many people would likely have said yes at the time. Would that answer be called scientific? Does it still apply today?

Likely not.

And that is what we fear from government surveys that are used to justify a course of action.


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