Five Things About Long-Term Monitoring

Professor David Lindenmayer wrote this excellent article for  the latest edition of ‘Decision Point’, thank you to David Salt, editor of Decision Point for allowing us to share it here.

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.Here are five things to keep in mind when considering long-term monitoring.

1. Evidence-based policy needs long-term monitoring

Long-term monitoring provides essential evidence on which to base good environmental decisions, management and policy.

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, or whether different interventions are needed.

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. Good design begins with asking what the monitoring will be used for. There must be capacity to learn from the monitoring results, and a willingness of managers to respond. In addition to these key factors, there are some fundamental ingredients which contribute to good monitoring design. These include:

  • Careful articulation of the objectives of monitoring, with all partners being clear about the aims and objectives
  • Good and tractable questions of management relevance
  • Implementation of a robust statistical design
  • Regular assessment of the data gathered (to ensure errors in the dataset are corrected and key missing variables can be gathered)
  • The inclusion of trigger points for action if major changes occur in the system being monitored

Long-term monitoring programs that are 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 is 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.

An adaptive monitoring approach may also 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.

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 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 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 on what the results of long-term monitoring are showing.

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 and why it is relevant to informed policy and decision making. 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.

5. But remember, ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’

Many long-term monitoring program focus on threatened species and ecosystems and we know from experience that 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 political calculus. They are more interested in what it means for their voters. Therefore, it is important to consider how they can be integrated with other metrics relating to your system of interest when considering the outputs of long-term monitoring programs. The environment is important but it is important to remember that the social and economic dimensions of the system are incredibly significant when it comes to policy and 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 associations with the ‘inner workings’ of the long-term monitoring programs such as she 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 of the discovery of new problems (such as the colonisation of new species of invasive organisms). The five themes discussed can potentially influence each of these kinds of decisions and vice-versa. The case for good long-term monitoring as as an evidence base for better decision  making is indisputable.

This article was adapted from Decision Point.

 

Feature Image:  Billions of dollars have been invested in large-scale restoration programs across farming landscapes in Australia and overseas. Some projects involve the protection of remnant native vegetation, others involve linear or block plantings of native trees. Some involve innovative mixes of native and traditional crops. Which approaches work? Which designs are most cost effective and enduring? Long-term monitoring can generate the evidence on which to judge these programs and build better policy (evidence-based policy). Unfortunately, long-term monitoring for such programs is more the exception than the rule. (Image by Dean Ansell)