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
Monash University, Melbourne, Vic. Email: email@example.com
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.
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
- identifying a potential framework for CBM programs within terrestrial parks.
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
CBM activities have been widely adopted by Friends Groups across the state.
Tasks varied from the monitoring of flora (threatened species, weed mapping,
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.
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
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.
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
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
- 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
- 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.