Measuring condition, and changes over time, is an essential component of good natural resource management (NRM). Without this information, how can we know whether our land, water or biodiversity is in good condition, getting better or worse, or whether our management is effective in reaching our goals or needs to be changed? As the old adage says, “if you don’t measure, you can’t manage”.
Despite the obvious value and sense in measurement, governments have for a long time been unwilling to fund monitoring as a component of NRM projects. Although funds are available to undertake a range of management activities, NRM programs seem unwilling to fund the essential monitoring required to demonstrate whether that management met its objectives, provided good value for money, or can be improved upon. Sure, there is monitoring of project outputs, such as number of trees planted, kilometers fenced or meetings held, but no measurement of outcomes achieved, that is, of the resources themselves. This has led to repeated criticism of NRM programs by audit offices and others.
Partly in response to this failure, there is renewed interest in Citizen Science. This term is used to describe survey, measurement or research activities undertaken by individuals, groups or communities in the general public interest. It is usually not undertaken at the behest of governments or business, though it may be linked to broader programs that involve or are established by them. The participants are usually unpaid, though not always. They are members of the general public who volunteer to participate, and who either have specialist skills in the work required or are willing and able to be trained for it. Long-term ecological or NRM monitoring are well-suited to citizen science because it can provide access to people who live in the particular area of interest and bring local knowledge and experience, have the specialist skills required, or are prepared to support the costs of their own involvement.
An excellent overview of citizen science, prepared by Nic Dunlop, has been published by the Conservation Council of WA, entitled “Citizen Science for Ecological Monitoring in Western Australia”. It provides an overview of what citizen science is, of ecological monitoring and sample design, and of how to plan a monitoring program. It then describes in detail four examples of ecological monitoring programs involving citizen science that have been taken through the planning and method-testing processes to pilot data collection. Copies are available from the Council at email firstname.lastname@example.org ph. 08 9420 7266 or website www.conservationwa.asn.au.