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Uncertainty, complexity and adaptation: The importance of ecological monitoring for sustainable natural resource management

Written by Zachary Wurtzebach, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Student in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship

Even under ideal circumstances, natural resource management is bedeviled by uncertainty. In addition to societal uncertainties—such as market volatility, political pendulum swings, and shifting values— natural resource managers must also wrestle with the inherent complexity of natural systems. It isn’t rocket science—it’s often trickier than that. When NASA astronauts press the launch button, they can be fairly confident it will start a chain reaction that leads to blast off. The properties of each component part and the relationships between them are well understood. They are designed that way. But the ecological systems that support the goods and services we depend on (such as timber, water, and aesthetic values)? Those are more complex. Each is composed of a complex of web of different component parts, many of which we are still struggling to understand. We put a man on the moon in 1969, for instance, but we are just now learning about the specific mechanisms that result in tree death.

The uncertainty inherent in natural systems is also multiplied exponentially by our planet’s changing climate. We know that the average global temperature is rising—and fast. However, we don’t know specifically how the climate will change in a particular place. Will it get hotter, warmer, or maybe even colder? Will it be wetter, or drier? It’s not just averages that matter: the timing and duration of extreme events like heat waves or droughts implications for devastating disturbances such as insect outbreaks or wildfires. And even if we are fairly certain that disturbances and extreme events may increase, there is still a lot of uncertainty about how we can foster adaptation and increase resilience (i.e. make sure natural systems can bounce back after they occur).

One important strategy for reducing uncertainty and fostering adaptation is environmental monitoring. Monitoring involves tracking the status and trend of resource conditions over time. There are two kinds of monitoring that are critical for natural resource management. Long term condition monitoring involves collecting data on important ecological attributes over a long time period in order to establish baseline trends. For example, despite a lot of year to year variability, long term monitoring of precipitation trends can let us know if it’s getting wetter or drier in a specific location, or if there are significant changes in water quality over time. It’s like your vital signs. Every time you go in for a check-up, your doctor checks your pulse and blood pressure. Changes in your vitals over time can signal that something is wrong, and action needs to be taken. If your doctor prescribes medication, he will see you more frequently to make sure you don’t have any side effects. This latter type of check-up is analogous to the other important type of monitoring: effectiveness monitoring. Effectiveness monitoring is essential for understanding the effects of specific management actions, allowing managers to learn about what works (or what doesn’t) over shorter time periods. For example, effectiveness monitoring can help us understand what forest management strategies promote resilience to drought, insects, and disease.

But there are challenges associated with implementing both types of monitoring. In general, monitoring is expensive. Rigorous monitoring often involves intensive on the ground data collection by highly trained field crews, or it requires the installation of expensive measurement devices. Scientists don’t often have incentives to conduct long term condition monitoring, because it may be years before they can publish the results (and they need to publish often). Natural resource managers, such as National Park Superintendents, are also often reluctant to commit to long term monitoring that may not create actionable information until after they leave (especially when funds are tight). Managers are also often wary of funding and implementing effectiveness monitoring. Besides the expertise and cost needed to do it right, there is the danger that monitoring may show that management actions did not have the intended effect. This can turn a management success story (one that got accomplished) to a liability—a particular concern within the often litigious and politically charge context of public land management.

Despite these challenges, there are a lot of promising new tools and approaches that may promote better ecological monitoring and management. For one, there are new institutional strategies for implementing effective monitoring programs. Natural resource management agencies, such as the National Park Service, have institutionalized autonomous and well-funded monitoring programs that support rigorous long term monitoring across multiple units. There are also new technologies, such as remote sensing applications, that utilize satellites to track numerous indicators of change from outer space. Unmanned drones are also another new promising and cost effective tool for monitoring that are just now beginning to be utilized.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is the promise of citizen science. Armed with smart phones, interested individuals can help identify and track the spread of invasive species, or chart bird migrations as they occur, in real time. In addition to the data, citizen engagement is a great way to generate awareness of natural resource management issues, and it may help to build political support for conservation—and monitoring—in an era of increasing change and uncertainty.

Regardless of the method by which data is collected, there is still a critical need for thoughtful people to analyze and effectively communicate the resulting information. Often this requires strategies for delivering the information to multiple audiences, from decision-makers, to the general public. For natural resource management agencies, this will require reaching out to experts in other professions, such as marketing and communication. A few forward-thinking agencies like the National Park Service are already trying to do so, experimenting with different “scorecards” for ecological health and integrity. It is a critical endeavor, and one that may be the most important strategy we have for improving natural resource management in an era of climate change and uncertainty.

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