Good decisions for the environment need an eye on the longer term
Long-term monitoring provides essential evidence on which to base good environmental decisions
Good design is essential for effective long-term monitoring
Things change over time; to remain effective, long-term monitoring needs to adapt around these changes
Partnerships are crucial for ensuring long-term monitoring is maintained and listened to
Long-term monitoring is most effective where it is complemented by other value frames (such as economics)
Effective long-term environmental monitoring is difficult and challenging; it requires good design, careful review, long-term commitment, and often gets overlooked when resources are handed out by our political leaders. Given this, why bother? We bother because long-term monitoring is the cornerstone of effective environmental policy and management. In a ‘post-truth’ age witnessing a crisis in biodiversity decline, long-term monitoring is something we can’t afford not to do.
But, if you are going to do it, it needs to be done properly. Here are five things that you should keep in mind in any consideration of long-term monitoring.
1. Evidence-based policy needs long-term monitoring
The mantra of modern governments and other bodies responsible for managing natural resources (including biodiversity) is that both management and policy must be ‘evidence based’. In a world in which ‘truth’ is constantly under attack the need is only greater, but where does that evidence come from. Long-term monitoring is often the essential source.
In terms of biodiversity, long-term monitoring is often needed to measure change in a given entity (such as a population of a species or the condition of an ecosystem), but also to measure how those entities change in response to some kind of management intervention (like pest control or habitat enhancement). Long-term monitoring is essential to determine if actions taken to manage the environment are effective, and therefore whether decisions made to invest in particular actions are vindicated (or whether different interventions are needed).
The problems of not conducting long-term monitoring are evident from many failed environmental programs, including those in which very large investments were made.
For example, despite billions of dollars of investment in river restoration programs in the USA, a paucity of robust longterm monitoring made it impossible to determine whether such restoration efforts had been effective. Likewise, the effectiveness of billion dollar agri-environment schemes to better manage biodiversity and other conservation values in farming landscapes in Europe and North America is poorly known because of a lack of long-term monitoring. Similarly, large-scale restoration programs funded by Australian governments remain poorly monitored (if monitored at all). This fundamental oversight leads to ineffective programs, vast amounts of wasted taxpayer funding and a public misperception that environmental problems cannot be resolved.
2. Effective long-term monitoring is built on good design
Long-term monitoring programs need to be underpinned by good design if they are to generate data that can guide effective environmental decisions. And that design begins with asking what the monitoring will actually be used for. And, if there is no intention on the part of managers to change their management or if there is no capacity to learn from the monitoring results, then a monitoring program may not even be appropriate (see Decision Point #52). If there is capacity to learn and a willingness of managers to respond, then there are some fundamental ingredients which contribute to good monitoring design.
- Careful articulation of the objectives of monitoring, with all partners being clear about the aims and objectives.
- Good and tractable questions of management relevance (often being informed by a well-developed conceptual model of the system being monitored).
- Implementation of a robust statistical design (that answers key questions).
- Regular assessment of the data gathered (to ensure errors in a dataset are corrected or key missing variables can be gathered).
- The inclusion of trigger points for action if major changes occur in the system being monitored.
Conversely, long-term monitoring programs established without these considerations can result in an expensive waste of resources.
3. Adaptive monitoring can be essential
Things change, it’s a given. It’s better to adapt to changes than stick with a monitoring program that is no longer relevant. Often there is a need to change the questions being posed over time and/or change the underlying experimental design in response to those changed questions. Or there might be other reasons for change like the development of new technology that requires altered field-based measurement protocols.
Poor earlier policy and/or management decisions also might create extra cascading environmental problems, demanding a reworking of the original scope of a monitoring program. An adaptive monitoring approach may be required to redesign a pre-existing monitoring program so that it can answer new key questions of management relevance that are useful in guiding environmental decisions.
An example of adaptive monitoring comes from monitoring the Environmental Stewardship Program (see below on the ESP).
What is long-term monitoring?
There are many formal definitions of what constitutes long-term monitoring but a good rule of thumb I apply is that it is any investigation involving repeat measurement that has been running continuously for ten or more years. Ten years is not a magical number separating ‘short-term’ from ‘long-term’, however monitoring programs that have run for longer than ten years usually have a ‘long-term’ framing aimed at capturing trends and variability that are often not evident in shorter programs.
4. Partnerships are critical
Effective long-term monitoring programs need good partners – partners that will help frame the purpose of the program, assist in translating the monitoring results into effective management decisions, and act as champions for the program to ensure it has a long-term future.
Partnerships between scientists, resource managers and policy makers can ensure that the key questions being addressed in a long-term monitoring program are management relevant but at the same time scientifically tractable. Partnerships also provide a vehicle for regular exchange of information and the opportunity to build a broad constituency to maintain longterm work. Such partnerships are essential to ensure that the evidence gathered from long-term monitoring can be widely communicated to those responsible for decision making; this may include engagement with the political process to inform ministers (and minster’s advisors) on what the results of longterm monitoring are showing.
Considerable effort is needed to maintain the array of partnerships which underpin long-term monitoring and its link with effective environmental decision making. For example, the rapid turnover (churn) of staff within government agencies poses a particular challenge as champions for particular projects are needed to maintain them in the long term.
Considerable time often needs to be expended by the scientific leader of a long-term project to explain what the work aims to do, why it is important, why it is relevant to informed policy and decision making. This may need to be done repeatedly as new staff are recruited. Field trips to long-term monitoring sites can sometimes be particularly effective as these provide a practical and tangible context for how particular management problems are being examined and tackled through science-manager partnerships (Lindenmayer et al, 2013).
5. But remember, ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’
Many long-term monitoring programs focus on threatened species and ecosystems and we know from experience this is a good basis for deciding how to effectively manage these systems. However, when it comes to our political representatives, long-term biophysical evidence is often of secondary significance in the political calculus. They are more interested in what it means for their voters which is why when considering the outputs of long-term monitoring programs it’s always valuable to consider how they can be integrated with other metrics relating to your system of interest. The environment is important but the social and economic dimensions of the system are possibly of greater significance when it comes to policy and decision making.
As an example, much has been written about the results of long-term ecological and environmental monitoring in the montane ash forests of the Central Highlands of Victoria (home to the Critically Endangered Leadbeater’s possum and several other threatened species). Unfortunately, much of the conservation science generated over many years remains ignored. However, monitoring may have more traction with decision makers when key natural assets are monetized in economic and environmental frameworks like those developed by the United Nations, for example the System of Economic and Environmental Accounting (or SEEA).
The SEEA framework enables the ‘value-added value’ of industries based on natural resources like tourism, carbon, water and timber to be compared in a formal and internationally accepted accounting framework. When applied to the forests of the Central Highlands it showed that the value-added value of the native forest timber industry was approximately a tenth of the water industry ($124m) and less than a twentieth of the tourism sector ($260m). Decisions to maintain timber production (which undermines the value of the water and tourism industries) are therefore based on something other than rational economics.
Notably, in a communique from a 2016 COAG meeting, the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Energy and his State and Territory colleagues recommended that environmental accounting be widely applied and adopted in Australia. We suggest that the approach has the potential to add considerable value to datasets that are being gathered in environmental monitoring programs and provides a new way that such programs can help influence decision making.
Decisions and long-term monitoring
Long-term monitoring programs are often linked with many kinds of decisions; some associated with better informing on-the-ground management, others linked with changes in policies. There are also scientific decisions associated with the ‘inner workings’ of long-term monitoring programs such as the way they are designed or re-designed and how protocols for field measurements might be altered on the basis of the development of new techniques or the discovery of new problems (such as the colonization of new species of invasive organisms). The five themes discussed here can potentially influence each of these kinds of decisions and vice-versa. Regardless of what influences what, the case for good longterm monitoring as an (evidence) base for better decision making is indisputable.
More info: David Lindenmayer David.Lindenmayer@anu.edu.au
References and further reading
Lindenmayer DB, D Blair, L McBurney & SC Banks (2015). Ignoring the science in failing to conserve a faunal icon – major political, policy and management problems in preventing the extinction of Leadbeater’s possum. Pacific Conservation Biology 21: 257-265.
Lindenmayer DB & GE Likens (2009). Adaptive monitoring: a new paradigm for long-term research and monitoring. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 24: 482-486.
Lindenmayer DB & GE Likens (2010). The science and application of ecological monitoring. Biological Conservation 143: 1317-1328.
Lindenmayer DB, M Piggott & B Wintle (2013). Counting the books while the library burns: Why conservation monitoring programs need a plan for action. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 549-555.
Adaptive monitoring and the ESP
The Environmental Stewardship Scheme (ESP) was established to assess the effectiveness of management interventions associated with a major agri-environment scheme in the temperate woodlands of eastern Australia.
Farmers are paid to carry out specific management actions to improve the condition of patches of endangered Box Gum Grassy Woodlands (BGGWs) on their land.
The ESP comprises a total of 158 farms in a region stretching over 2000 km (south to north). A patch of BGGW targeted for stewardship management on each of the 158 farms is also targeted for monitoring with a matched control patch (where no stewardship management occurs) also monitored on each farm. The budget for the monitoring was initially substantial as the government agency responsible for the ESP demanded that every patch on every farm be monitored every 1-2 years. However, funding cuts occurred four years into the 15-year program (as is often the case with long-term environmental programs). Adaptive monitoring had to be adopted to prevent the entire monitoring effort collapsing. A rotating sampling monitoring approach was introduced in which 65% of farms were surveyed in any given year with a complete ‘census’ of all farms undertaken twice in four years (Lindenmayer et al 2012). The emphasis of monitoring switched from an assessment of compliance for implementing particular kinds of conservation management to an estimation of changes in condition across a large ‘population’ of sites.
Importantly, recent analyses of the data gathered in the monitoring program show that stewardship management is leading to significantly improved woodland condition and also increases in biodiversity.
Lindenmayer DB, C Zammit, SA Attwood, E Burns, CL Shepherd, GE Kay & J Wood (2012). A novel and cost-effective monitoring approach for outcomes in an Australian biodiversity conservation incentive program. PLOS One 7:e50872.
15 years at Booderee
Strong and enduring partnerships have been at the heart of the success of the 15-year monitoring program at Booderee National Park (Lindenmayer et al, 2013). The data from the monitoring program have underpinned approaches to fire management by the resource managers of the park. For example, areas that have been subject to many previous fires are those where subsequent prescribed burning is avoided as long-term data shows that bird species richness at a given site is reduced for each additional time that area is burned (Lindenmayer et al. 2013).
Lindenmayer DB, C MacGregor, N Dexter, M Fortescue & P Cochrane (2013). Booderee National Park management: Connecting science and management. Ecological Management & Restoration 14: 2-10