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Australasian Plant Conservation

Originally published in Australasian Plant Conservation 17(1) June - July 2008, pp 10-12

Community-based monitoring: exploring the involvement of Friends Groups in a terrestrial park management context

Ben Cooke
Monash University, Melbourne, Vic. Email: cooke_ben@hotmail.com

Study Background

Environmental monitoring is a critical tool for informing the management of Victoria's public parks and reserves. It provides base knowledge of both the natural assets and the threats which confront our protected area system. Monitoring also helps to identify changes in the park landscape and determine the success of park management activities. Globally, monitoring activities conducted by volunteers have proved accurate data can be obtained, and this data can be extremely useful in informing management actions. Moreover, Community-Based Monitoring (CBM) can foster a sense of ownership of natural areas amongst participating volunteers, raising awareness of environmental issues and leading to improved bonds between community members and decision makers. Volunteers often have unique local knowledge which can be valuable for monitoring activities. However, the skills possessed by monitoring participants must be of a sufficient standard to ensure the data collected is accurate enough to achieve its desired management outcome.

The presence of over 120 Friends Groups associated with state and national parks in Victoria provides an avenue for volunteer involvement in CBM. While some Friends Groups have been participating in CBM for some time, the scale of monitoring activities and their subsequent outcomes is not widely understood at a state wide management level. Objectives

The objective of this research was to explore how Friends Group monitoring activities contribute to park management, using terrestrial-based Friends Groups in Victoria as a case study. To achieve this objective the following research aims where identified:

  • exploring the current state of CBM conducted by Friends Groups;
  • investigating the relationship between Friends Groups and rangers regarding CBM; and
  • identifying a potential framework for CBM programs within terrestrial parks.

Study Design

To complete this study, 11 individual volunteers from a range of Friends Groups located across the state (Fig. 1) were interviewed about their participation and experience of CBM activities. These groups were selected initially by acquiring from Parks Victoria a list of Friends Groups that had conducted monitoring in the last 12 months; five of these groups agreed to an interview. To ensure a range of groups from a variety of urban and rural parks were interviewed, the Victorian Friends Network website (http://home.vicnet.net.au/~friends/index.html) was used to select the remaining groups. To determine the opinions of Park Rangers towards CBM, the 87 Parks Victoria Rangers listed as having 'Community Liaison' responsibilities with community groups were sent a short questionnaire; 34 rangers responded to the survey.

Monitoring Activities

CBM activities have been widely adopted by Friends Groups across the state. Tasks varied from the monitoring of flora (threatened species, weed mapping, fixed-point photography) and fauna (mammal trapping, nest boxes, bird surveys/mist netting, frog monitoring, lyrebird and koala counts), to water quality and ecological burns. Overall, the predominant monitoring focus was flora, specifically threatened species, mapping indigenous flora, and introduced weed species. Social Networks

The strength of social networks between Friends Groups and other environmental community groups facilitated the sharing of knowledge and skills which benefited volunteer monitoring capacity. These networks often connected volunteers to industry professionals working in government agencies or herbaria that helped fill any knowledge gaps the groups possessed. As a result, data accuracy could be validated, which promoted a more positive view of the value of volunteer monitoring by Park Rangers in a number of cases.

Data Use & Accuracy

Of the 21 ranger questionnaire respondents who indicated CBM occurred in their park, 86% actually receive the data collected by the associated Friends Group. Moreover, 78% of rangers rated the accuracy of this data as either 'good' or 'excellent'. It is not surprising, therefore, that 79% of the Rangers receiving monitoring data are using it to inform park management in some capacity. Rangers identified a high level of competency amongst select volunteers, while some suggested such results were indicative of the degree of ranger involvement required in the completion of CBM tasks.

Role of the Individual

Highly motivated individuals were often the key to the continuity of monitoring projects. The task of recording and storing data, organising and motivating the other Friends Group members regularly falls to a small number of people. The greater the knowledge and skill requirement of a monitoring project, the fewer the number of members who were involved. However, even the simpler monitoring tasks, such as species counts, rarely involved the whole group at once.

Ranger Relationships

Volunteers felt rangers rarely had time to conduct monitoring activities, thus Friends Group participation helped fill a void in gathering baseline park knowledge. While rangers were generally very positive about CBM, some indicated volunteer monitoring often requires a time and resource commitment to assist volunteers in an organisational capacity. The nature of the relationship between Friends Groups and rangers had an impact on the range of volunteer activities in general, with open and regular communication fostering a mutual respect, often resulting in a more active Friends Group. Informal discussions over a cup of tea often proved more beneficial in terms of knowledge sharing and developing trust than formal or annual meetings.

Challenges

Friends Groups often confronted their own unique barriers to partaking in CBM, depending on local factors. However, common challenges included a declining and aging volunteer network, deficiencies in the requisite ecological knowledge and skills, a lack of clear monitoring objectives, maintaining motivation for monitoring over time, and receiving ongoing funding and management support for monitoring projects.

Of these common challenges, maintaining motivation seemed to permeate all the barriers which confront CBM. Friends Groups indicated that a lack of monitoring outcomes was directly linked with dwindling motivation. Previous CBM studies have identified that the use of photography as a means of visually capturing monitoring outcomes can be effective in maintaining volunteer motivation.

Figure 1. The number of Friends Groups selected for interviews from the various State and National Park regional areas of Victoria.

Recommendations for Improving CBM in Terrestrial Parks

  • Monitoring training - focusing on flora and fauna training is a key priority, with an educational component so monitoring results are understood in the context of broader park management aims.
  • Regional coordination - training support could be delivered by an external regional coordinator, easing some of the burden from local rangers, whilst also acting as collector for Friends Group monitoring data.
  • Setting targets - monitoring projects must have clear and attainable goals, so volunteers can see the value of the task to their local park from the outset.
  • Volunteer consultation - involving volunteers in developing monitoring projects may increase Friends Group ownership of CBM, enhancing motivation and improving project sustainability.
  • Standardised methods - monitoring methods must be standardised for ongoing result consistency, making monitoring processes clear so projects have a greater chance of being sustained by others if key volunteer participants move on.
  • Ranger communication - volunteers and rangers must continue to foster good relations if long-term monitoring projects are to be sustained.
  • Monitoring outcomes - projects should have visually communicated outcomes to enable Friends Groups to easily track their progress, subsequently helping to maintain motivation. Fixed point photography should be considered as either a stand alone monitoring technique or a component of a wider CBM task wherever possible.
  • Data sharing - a central internet-based database for data storage and retrieval, combined with an internet forum to exchange ideas, could help to facilitate greater knowledge-sharing between Friends Groups.
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