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What does the public know about wetlands in Michigan? Using focus groups for scoping and exploratory research.


Vileisis (1997, xii) prefaces her highly regarded work on American wetlands by pointing out that, "we must know not only the science that proves [wetland] values but also the society that struggles to accommodate those values amid myriad pressing others." Wetlands, like other complex ecosystems, are influenced by interacting geophysical, chemical, biological, and human systems. While society seems to increasingly value wetland services such as water quality improvement, flood control, wildlife habitat, and recreation, individual owners of wetlands are often unable to profit from their wetlands' provision of such public goods (Heimlich et al. 1998). As a result, there is often a tension between public and private interests in wetland protection. Therefore, policymakers and others interested in resolving such a tension and crafting improved public policy need to better understand what matters to people about wetlands and the services they provide (Scodari 1997). A better understanding of what matters to the public about wetlands may help in the design of policies and education efforts that are more effective and better supported by the public.

While some studies have tried to measure the economic value of specific wetlands (e.g., Stevens et al. 1995; Streever et al. 1998), other studies have addressed potential biases in the economic valuation of wetlands (e.g., Teal and Loomis 2000). However, it is often unclear in these and other studies what it is about wetlands that people actually know and appreciate (Swallow et al. 1998). Too often, it seems that "decisions affecting wetlands are often made without adequate knowledge of public attitudes" (Stevens et al. 1995, 226). Furthermore, "The quality of decisions may suffer if governmental agencies make decisions according to what citizens want based on their own (perhaps limited) experience [citations omitted]" (Lauber et al. 2002).

This paper reports on the use of focus groups as a method for helping researchers understand the public's "baseline" wetland knowledge and appreciation. Such information on the public's baseline wetland knowledge will help policymakers, researchers, and stakeholders make informed decisions vis-a-vis wetland protection. The paper describes the study objectives and the methods used, then presents the results before exploring some of the implications of the findings. Finally the paper concludes with a discussion of some possible policy and research impacts.


Wetlands are transitional ecosystems that occupy a spectrum between land and water ecosystems (National Research Council (U.S.) Committee on Characterization of Wetlands 1995). Types of wetlands include: bottomland swamps, tidal marshes, cattail marshes, vernal ponds, fens, and bogs. Wetlands provide a range of ecological and biogeochemical functions such as water storage, maintenance of surface and groundwater flows, biochemical cycling, and maintenance of characteristic habitats. These biological, chemical, and physical functions, in turn, provide services that may be valued by people. For example, the flood water retention function of a wetland may be responsible for the service of flood control that may be positively valued by individuals. In the United States, a wetland protection policy of "no net loss" seeks to stem the loss of wetlands. To operationalize the "no net loss" policy, state and federal governments require mitigation (i.e., replacement) of destroyed wetlands through the creation, restoration, or protection of equivalent wetlands in the area (National Research Council (U.S.) Committee on Characterization of Wetlands 1995). However, even in instances where wetland acreage is unchanged by mitigating an equal number of acres, the quality of wetlands and their ability to provide services is often diminished (Dahl 2000).


This research set out to assess the knowledge of Michigan citizens regarding wetlands and wetland ecosystems. Specifically, the research objectives were to explore (1) people's prior knowledge concerning wetlands, wetland types, and wetland functions; and (2) people's knowledge of public policies relating to wetlands and wetland replacement. Goals of this research included determining the baseline knowledge of Michigan's general public concerning wetlands and wetland policy as well as exploring appropriate methods for subsequent research concerning wetland ecosystem valuation.


Social scientists in diverse fields of study regularly use qualitative methods as comprehensive research tools and as important components in designing and implementing reliable research studies (Krueger 1994; Morgan 1997; Schwarz 1997; Sudman et al. 1996; Weiss 1994). Focus groups are recognized and relied upon as important aspects of resource valuation research (Carson and Mitchell 1993; Chilton and Hutchinson 1999; Hutchinson et al. 1995; Schkade and Payne 1994). Qualitative interviews have been used to incorporate local knowledge in management of forest and coastal wetland resources (Kovacs 1999; Hull et al. 2001). Focus group interviews have been used to explore ways to improve the fairness of natural resource decision making as well as to identify coastal resource management conflicts (Smith and McDonough 2001; Kaplowitz 1999). Furthermore, qualitative methods (including focus groups) have been used in the design phase of economic valuation studies to identify the range of use and nonuse values associated with particular wetland ecosystems (Kaplowitz and Hoehn 2001).

Qualitative methods allow researchers to (1) discover themes, (2) consider the choice and meanings of words, (3) consider the context(s) of data collection, and (4) consider the consistency of responses (Krueger 1994). The qualitative analysis does not produce simple counts of things, but rather "fractures" the data and rearranges them into categories that facilitate understanding the data and comparing the data within and between categories (Maxwell 1996; Strauss and Corbin 1998). Using video recordings and transcripts allows researchers to use memos (researcher's notes and observations), categorizing strategies (coding and thematic analysis), and contextualizing strategies (narrative analysis and individual case studies) to better understand what participants said, meant, and understood. Focus group interviews are conducted by researchers to learn about issues, concerns, and perceptions. It is generally accepted that focus group interviews rely on the dynamics of group interactions to reveal participants' similarities and differences of opinion as well as their understandings and beliefs (Knodel 1997; Krueger 1994; Morgan 1996; Morgan 1997; Morgan et al. 1998).

Scoping Focus Groups

To accomplish the research goals and objectives, the investigators developed a series of "scoping" focus groups with randomly recruited participants from mid-Michigan. The aim of these focus groups was to learn from members of the general public about their uses, perceptions, and understanding of wetlands, wetland types and services, and wetland policy. The use of scoping focus groups has been found to be an efficient and successful approach for learning about a population's issues, concerns, and uses of natural resources (Kaplowitz and Hoehn 2001). Such scoping focus groups are also recognized for their ability to capture participants' mistaken or partial understandings and are generally accepted as an important first step for developing a foundation for further research (Kaplowitz et al. 2004; Presser et al. 2004). The sessions for this study were designed to provide the researchers with the "scope" or "lay of the land" of what people, without additional information or prompts, know and understand about wetlands, wetland services, and wetlands policy. As a result, they are referred to as scoping focus groups.

Session Size and Recruiting

The focus group size was conditioned by the desire for them to be "small enough for everyone to have an opportunity to share insights and yet large enough to provide diversity of perceptions" (Krueger 1994, 17). Following the maxim that one needs as many sessions as necessary until nothing new is learned in the last session (Maxwell 1996; Morgan 1997), the researchers planned to conduct these scoping focus groups until no major new information was revealed. In all, three focus group sessions were held with 5, 6 and 8 participants respectively. The focus group sessions followed a detailed discussion guide to lead respondents through several topics including: natural resources of importance to people; prior knowledge of wetlands; cognizance of wetland policies; and reaction to wetland replacement scenarios. The discussion guide is described in more detail below.

Table 1 lists characteristics of the three focus groups and the overall sample. Participants for the focus groups were recruited from the general population of adults in the vicinity of Lansing, Michigan using random, telephone recruitment. Research assistants picked a random page in the local phonebook, and began dialing every 5th residential number. After exhausting and retiring that page from the local directory, the research assistant repeated the random selection process until recruiting was completed. Trained recruiters followed carefully crafted recruitment scripts to invite potential participants to the sessions. Potential participants were asked to participate in a group discussion of "natural resource issues in Michigan." Potential participants were also asked a series of brief questions to screen out those individuals with advanced knowledge of wetlands or potential conflicts that might unduly influence the sessions. The goal of the sessions was to learn about the general population's wetland knowledge and keeping "experts" from the panel enabled the researchers to hear from such participants. Potential participants were not told that they would be discussing wetlands. In keeping with generally accepted focus group procedures, participants received a small ($40) honorarium for their participation. These groups were not meant to be representative of all of Michigan for statistical purposes but rather were designed to provide insights into the wetland knowledge and understanding of a cross-section of non-expert, mid-Michigan residents.

Session Organization and Discussion Guide

The focus group sessions were organized for evenings on the campus of Michigan State University (MSU). Each focus group took roughly two hours. The sessions were held in a special focus group facility at MSU. The same trained focus group moderator used the same specially prepared discussion guide for all three focus groups. The moderator followed the guide and used non-directive prompts to encourage participants to participate and elaborate their responses. The detailed discussion guide was used to lead respondents through several topics and to: (1) learn what natural resources were important to people; (2) explore people's level of prior knowledge concerning wetlands; (3) gather information concerning people's knowledge of wetland types; (4) explore people's knowledge of public policies relating to wetlands; (5) learn people's opinions of the importance of certain wetland functions; (6) evaluate how people process given wetland definitions/pictures; and (7) examine people's reaction to a particular wetland replacement scenario. The questions in the discussion guide were designed, drawing heavily on highly regarded wetland education materials (Kesselheim et al. 1995), to systematically evaluate participants' background knowledge and understanding of descriptions of wetlands and what they do. The seven primary components of the interview guide and sessions are conceptually in line with the required elements for designing an effective wetland stated choice questionnaire, a hopeful next step in the researchers' research program. That is why, in the fifth section of the sessions, the moderator and discussion guide used generally accepted explanations of wetland functions taken from wetland educational materials to prompt discussions (Kesselheim et al. 1995). The final component of the sessions was designed to explore tentative wetland valuation contexts that might be relevant for future research.

Data Collection and Analysis

In addition to transcripts made from video and audio recordings of the focus group sessions, the researchers and the moderator kept written notes. Also, worksheets used by respondents to identify their top natural resource issues and rank the wetland functions were collected and analyzed. The transcript data were subsequently analyzed following a grounded-theory approach (Strauss and Corbin 1990). The researchers reviewed transcripts and video tapes of the focus group sessions multiple times in the coding process. The wetland knowledge, policy, and understanding in the data were identified and grouped into thematic categories. The researchers identified, codified, and documented "evidence" or data and grouped them in the appropriate thematic areas. The researchers' use of a selective coding process allowed for the systematic relation of data on major wetlands themes and their elements to existing wetlands literature. This final iteration of coding and categorizing the transcripts resulted in the genesis of a framework that details what the public knows about wetlands in mid-Michigan. This iterative data analysis approach enabled the researchers to extract and derive the major ideas and themes from the data (Krueger 1994; Krueger 1998).


The scoping focus groups helped the researchers (1) learn how the general public in mid-Michigan thought about wetlands and (2) identify information gaps in the public's wetland knowledge. The scoping focus groups revealed that many Michigan residents have some experience and familiarity with wetlands and some knowledge of wetland services. The focus groups also revealed some widely-held misperceptions. In general, respondents understood that wetlands support a variety of biological, chemical, and geo-physical functions, especially habitat for plants and animals. As one respondent pointed out,
 "Fish, turtles, muskrats, and you know deer, deer live in the swamp,
 they go in the swamp to drink the water, so you get all sorts of
 animals in the swamp, like bears ... it's their kind of a refuge, for
 all the animals in the world."

Prior Knowledge of Wetlands

The focus group guide was designed to learn about the knowledge concerning wetlands participants brought to the sessions, before being shown wetland education materials. The initial question asked participants to describe what they think of when they hear the word "wetland." A variety of answers were given that could be classified as wetland types (e.g., swamps, marshes, bogs), wetland functions (e.g., a drain, flood prevention, filters for water), and wetland species (e.g., plants, animals, mosquitoes). Others responses included such things as an individual bringing up enforcement by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (note that in actuality, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality typically has jurisdiction) and others raising negative connotations (e.g., gunk on shoes, stink, smells).

When asked about wetlands in terms of water and other physical aspects, participants described stagnant water and muddy places. Many participants associated wetlands as a refuge for wildlife including animals, birds, and insects. Some of the specific wildlife mentioned were fish, turtles, deer, bats, woodpeckers, and mosquitoes. Wetland vegetation such as wildflowers was also mentioned frequently. Specifically, participants mentioned algae, trees that are down, dead trees, cattails, and lily pads. The inquiry also resulted in participants identifying several things that wetlands do or how they are important. Throughout the less structured discussions, participants brought up several functions of wetlands. Some of the specific ideas they discussed include flood prevention, water purification, provide drinking water, outlet for rain and snow, habitat for wildlife, plants that clean the air, and pristine undisturbed area.

Following the initial exploratory phase of the focus groups, the moderator turned the participants' attention to excerpts from generally accepted wetland educational materials to explore participants' understanding of wetland functions.

Wetland Functions

Wetland functions are the biological, chemical, and geo-physical processes that result from healthy wetland systems (Kesselheim et al. 1995). Physical/hydrological functions provided by some wetlands include flood control (i.e., wetlands acting as natural sponges capturing, storing, and slowly releasing flood water), coastal protection (i.e., coastal wetlands acting as storm buffers and dampers to tidal erosion), and water quality restoration (i.e., wetlands acting as sediment sinks). Wetlands may also provide chemical functions including pollution interception (e.g., wetland plants' nutrient up-take and filtering) and waste treatment (e.g., removal of coliform bacteria). Likewise, wetlands may provide a range of biological functions including biological production (i.e., primary productivity of vegetation and detritus) and habitat (e.g., year-round populations and part of species' daily, seasonal, or life cycles). The researchers systematically coded the focus group data into thematic categories based on these generally recognized wetland functions (Kesselheim et al. 1995).

Flood Control. Thirteen of 19 respondents (68%) raised and discussed wetlands as providing flood control. Respondents repeatedly evidenced a solid knowledge of and appreciation for wetlands' ability to control flooding.

For example:

* "Wetland protects property and other things and life from being flooded."

* "They're spongy, you know. Actually, I think of Phil Nye the science guy, you know, he had an excellent demonstration of why we need wetlands. It's just that it soaks up water and so that the other lands don't get flooded and because it's sort of spongy it does soak up excess water like it served to prevent a flood in case of a flash a lot of rain you know you don't expect."

Shoreline Erosion Control. Only after prompts about coastal areas, 10 of 19 respondents (53%) discussed the role that wetlands and wetland vegetation play in control and prevention of shoreline erosion. However, there was skepticism about wetlands' abilities to control erosion.

For example:

* "Are you suggesting that when you build on a shoreline and remove the plants that erosion occurs and the house falls into the water?"

* "Oh I think it's important because if we didn't have the plants to hold the shorelines I mean look at California."

Groundwater Recharge. The respondents did not seem to know about or understand wetlands' relationship to groundwater, with most respondents saying nothing about ground water recharge even when prompted. In addition to those who said nothing about ground water recharge, 6 of 19 respondents (32%) specifically said that they did not know about or understand how wetland related to ground water recharge.

For example:

* "Do you mean supplying more water to compensate for what evaporates off? I don't know is that what recharge means?"

* "I guess because my ideal way to see this would be a marshy bog that's in a depression and then having a water table below it."

Water Quality. Respondents were prompted to discuss the role of wetlands visa-vis water quality. However, respondents did not differentiate between services such as water quality improvement, pollution interception, and sediment control. Also, it was clear that for many, the concept of water quality was synonymous with drinking water quality.

For example:

* "What's the difference between this one and sediment stabilization?"

* "I think it's extremely important the water quality. I mean it's what we're drinking. When you get to the quality of water you want the best quality of water you're putting in your body."

Pollution Interception or Toxic Residue Interception. Specific bio-geophysical processes were confusing to respondents and they raised concerns about the political context of pollution control. Only two of 19 respondents (11%) evidenced an understanding of wetlands performing the function of pollution interception. This was especially noteworthy because all of the respondents were given a description of this function taken from standard wetland educational materials.

For example:

* "But I think some of the chemicals are, they don't just, I mean they just evaporate, they're sucked up. They don't go down any farther. They don't go down into the ground water."

* "I guess I have a problem with the toxic residuals being buried and neutralized. I'm not so sure that's a correct statement because there are too many of these that can not be neutralized in the soil and in the water so I have a problem with that it should be prohibited from getting into the water in the first place."

Waste Water Treatment. While respondents seemed to have some notion of wetlands being used as part of waste treatment approaches, the participants made distinctions about natural versus man-made wetlands for the purpose of waste treatment.

For example:

* "My problem is that's what people have been doing for years is dumping their wastes, industrial wastes and human wastes and stuff into wetlands and saying that's going to take care of it."

* "It sounds like an inappropriate use of a wetland. Because it is not a natural function of a wetland isn't to take human created waste and dump in there for the purpose of cleaning it up."

Sediment Stabilization. While wetland scientists may be able to differentiate between the water quality-type wetland functions-sediment stabilization, water quality improvement, and pollution retention-it is clear that the general public has difficulty in making these distinctions.

For example:

* "The only other thing that comes to mind is that, yes, it traps nasty things and keeps them from going into well water and what not, the other thing is just think of all the nasty toxins that are being kept in the wetland, and what it is doing to all that."

* "That's what I was thinking just how much stuff is in there and what is it doing to the frogs. Are we going to get 5 legged frogs out of this?"

Habitat for Plants and Animals. The wetland function that respondents seemed to talk about with most ease and with the best understanding was habitat. Every respondent but one had some contribution to the discussion of wetlands' provision of habitat functions. Respondents tended to raise and focus on wetlands' habitat functions more than the other wetland functions in the sessions, always coming back to discussion centered on plant and animal habitat. Respondents offered specific examples of wildlife depending on wetlands as well as made passing remarks on the importance of wetlands as places for animals and plants.

Summary--Wetland Functions. The focus groups revealed that mid-Michigan residents have a working knowledge of wetlands and what they do. The sessions also reveled that respondents make strong connections between wetlands and the habitat they provide for plants and animals. However, some wetland function information in the scientific and public education literature is not well understood by respondents and does not seem to be within the realm of general public knowledge.

Wetland Knowledge and (Mis)Understanding

The sessions revealed that while some participants had basic knowledge of water quality functions of wetlands, most respondents were aware that wetlands provide animal and plant habitat. After being presented with information on what wetlands do, participants were asked to rate the importance of various wetland functions on their worksheets. Respondents rated most functions as "important" or "extremely important". Table 2 presents the results of these rating sheets for the 17 of 19 respondents that both completed the exercise and let the researchers keep their answer sheet (i.e., two participants refused to leave their sheets for further use). As Table 2 illustrates, the plants and animals habitat function received the most "extremely important" ratings (14 of 17). These findings support the qualitative results indicating that our respondents care about habitat functions associated with wetlands. This is important because the "no net loss" policy for wetland protection typically focuses on wetland acreage and hydrogeomorphic (HGM) approaches (Smith et al. 1995) and do not adequately protect or mitigate against the loss of habitat services. This evidences a disparity between policy and public perception.

The focus groups also revealed the surprising, but widely-held, misperception that "trees don't grow in wetlands" and that "wetlands kill trees." This misperception was stated by a number of respondents and supported by the consensus of the groups in all of the sessions. In one session, a respondent described a picture of a dead elm tree as follows, "Maybe it's been in a wetland for about ten years, so all the trees died." In another session, a respondent while looking at a picture of a wooded wetland wondered, "How would trees get that big if it's a wetland--they don't normally grow in there." These "dead-tree" comments occurred in all of the focus group sessions. In all instances when a participant raised this misperception, the other participants did not refute the statements. What makes this misperception especially interesting is that in Michigan, where the participants live, there have always been many more forested wetlands (wetlands with trees) than other types of wetlands. In fact, lowland hardwood wetlands and lowland conifer wetlands make up more than two-thirds of Michigan's wetlands (Comer 1996).

Wetland Mitigation

The focus groups also explored the respondents' understanding and knowledge of the current regulatory context for compensating the public for wetland losses (i.e., wetland mitigation). Mitigation is the use of construction techniques, purchase of alternative lands, and other activities regulated by the state to offset the loss of wetland acreage and wetland functions. The sessions revealed that respondents generally understood that wetlands are lost and destroyed for a variety of reasons (e.g., construction, urban sprawl). The group participants also seemed to understand and accept that the loss of wetlands in one area may be offset to some degree by wetlands created, restored or expanded elsewhere. However, some respondents doubted that functions of one wetland ecosystem being lost or destroyed could be replaced by wetland mitigation efforts.

For example, respondents pointed out that:

* "Wetlands, natural wetlands, have taken maybe centuries, maybe thousands or millions of years to become wetlands ... So it's awfully hard to say 'we're gonna [sic] take this thing that took centuries to build, thousands of years, millions of years, and duplicate it over here in, you know, a month and a half.' So I don't think you can, gosh, I just don't think you can do it."

* "My concern is that they recreate it, but where they're taking it away, all (the) wildlife that live there, how are they gonna [sic] get it to the new place? All those little frogs ... and seeds and you know larvae and what not and can they, can they replace it or I mean do they even bother or do they just let it get wet and wait for all of that stuff to happen?"

Although "mitigation" is the actual wetland term used in the regulatory setting, that term seemed to cause confusion as it seemed to be not well understood by respondents. In contrast, the ideal of "replacement" of lost wetlands and wetland functions did seem to be better understood. These results highlight the value of educators, policymakers, and researchers identifying and using appropriate language for communicating with the general public.


The reported research illustrates how qualitative research methods may be useful in assessing relevant issues for natural resource management and valuation. The research findings show that our sample of mid-Michigan residents was cognizant of wetlands but that their knowledge was uneven. Most of our respondents had some prior knowledge of wetland functions such as provision of wildlife habitat, maintenance of groundwater flows, and floodwater retention. That is, many participants seemed knowledgeable about some of the animals and plants found in wetland areas and could relate their wetland understanding to the wetlands they have seen in Michigan. However, the participants did not seem to have a general understanding of wetland ecosystems, wetland protection or mitigation policies. Furthermore, some functions identified by wetland science, such as retention of polluted run-off and waste treatment, were rejected by participants as apparently illegitimate purposes for the state's natural wetlands. For example, a portion of respondents thought that pollution retention would harm the ability of a wetland to support wildlife and other functions while others thought that current environmental laws, not wetlands, should lead to cleanup of pollution.

The successful use of focus groups to assess what a group of mid-Michigan citizens knows about wetlands helped to provide the researchers with a baseline upon which to build. Armed with knowledge of typical respondents' prior understanding of wetlands, wetland types, and wetland functions as well as their knowledge of public policies relating to wetlands and wetland replacement, the researchers will be able to advance subsequent quantitative research efforts. The focus groups provided useful insights and perspective for the content and design of subsequent research, including the development and implementation of nonmarket valuation surveys focusing on wetland mitigation and coastal wetland protection.

The research also demonstrates that focus groups may be important for helping to assess the need for and efficacy of public education efforts concerning environmental and natural resource protection. The sessions revealed what appeared to be prevalent commonalities in public understanding and knowledge as well as misperceptions concerning wetland ecosystems and policies. The results illustrate that focus groups may be effective in helping managers, researchers, and others to better understand their audiences' baseline natural resource knowledge and misperceptions.


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Michigan State University
TABLE 1. Demographics of Participants

 Session 1 Session 2
 Sept. 7, 2000 Sept. 13, 2000

Number Recruited 14 13
Number Attending 6 5
Attendance Rate 43% 38%
Male/Female 2 / 4 2 / 3
Age (range) 30-65 22-49
Age (mean) 49 38
Education (range) Two-year Degree to Four-year High School to Four-
 Degree year Degree
Education (mean) 3 years college 2 years college
Employment (range) retired to full-time retired to full-time
Employment (mean) full-time full-time

 Session 3
 Oct. 4, 2000 TOTAL

Number Recruited 17 44
Number Attending 12 arrived, 8 used* 19
Attendance Rate 71% n/a
Male/Female 4/4 8/11
Age (range) 26-65 22-65
Age (mean) 46 46
Education (range) High School to Masters High School to Masters
 Degree Degree
Education (mean) 2 years college 2 1/2 years college
Employment (range) unemployed to retired unemployed to retired
Employment (mean) full-time full-time

* Extra arrivals paid and excused; session used maximum number of
participants (8).

TABLE 2. Participants' Ranking of Wetland Functions

 Number of Responses N = 17
 Not Somewhat Quite Extremely
 Important Important Important Important Important

Flood Control 7 10
Groundwater 1 2 3 9
Habitat for 1 1 1 14
 Plants &
Pollution 1 8 8
Shoreline Erosion 2 1 7 7
Sediment 2 1 3 10
Waste Treatment 1 2 7 7
Water Quality 1 1 3 12
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Article Details
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Author:Kaplowitz, Michael D.; Lupi, Frank; Hoehn, John P.
Publication:Michigan Academician
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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