Linking Citizens With Scientists

By Carolyn Latteier

Illinois EcoWatch Coordinator Dana Curtiss didn’t invent the idea of using volunteers to collect scientific data, but she did knock on her boss’ door and suggest it. In 1994, the idea seemed unconventional. “He threw me out of the office,” she said. “I went to lunch, and when I came back there was a note on my chair saying, ‘We should talk.’”

Two years earlier, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had launched an ambitious project to get a “big picture” of the state’s natural resources. The Critical Trends Assessment Program (CTAP) brought together masses of scattered information to produce the first ever state-of-the-state report. The news was not good. Illinois’ natural systems were fragmented due to agricultural development and urbanization. Furthermore, not enough good data existed to assess the extent of the damage or track changes over time.

Compiling the initial data had been a major effort; doubling or tripling that effort was nearly unthinkable. In a perfect world, an army of scientists would fan out over Illinois and sample hundreds of sites. But, as Illinois Natural History Survey scientist Connie Carroll remarked, “There aren’t that many scientists; there isn’t that much time.” The solution, grudgingly accepted, was to use volunteers. So Curtiss and her team created EcoWatch, a network of trained citizen scientists who pulled on their hiking boots and hip-waders and ventured out to the forests, streams, and prairies to get the work done.

EcoWatch has now completed its first five years of monitoring. They have proved that volunteers can indeed collect valuable data. EcoWatch has trained some 2,500 citizen scientists to monitor three different biomes (streams, forests, and prairies) and to do so consistently, year after year. The program is still a work-in-progress. But by involving scientists and implementing tough quality assurance controls, EcoWatch has shown that volunteer scientists may be one of the greatest untapped resources available to resource managers today.

CTAP II, launched in 1995, was a joint effort between EcoWatch and scientists at the Illinois Natural History Survey. Curtiss knew she had turned a corner when instead of repeatedly trying to convince scientists that volunteers could do the job, the scientists began coming to her, saying “Would you mind including this in your monitoring scheme because we could really use this information.” Huddled around tables at EcoWatch’s Springfield headquarters or at the Survey offices in Champaign, scientists and DNR managers brainstormed on how to get a handle on complex and rapidly changing ecosystems. Illinois harbors one of the most hard-core urban centers in America, but it also contains remnants of delicate prairies, where acres of chest-high grasses turn purple with blazing stars every summer. Central hardwood forests are increasingly sliced up by farmers’ fields or suburbs, sometimes narrowing to thin strips you can practically see through. Illinois has more that 54,000 species of native plants and animals, but aggressive invaders such as the spiky-leafed garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and the beautiful but destructive Asian long-horned beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis) are working hard to shoulder them out.

The CTAP II team decided to conduct their monitoring on randomly selected sites including, with permission, privately owned land (EcoWatch guaranteed private landowners that the data collected by volunteers would never be used punitively). The scientists would monitor 30 sites annually and sample them once every five years — a total of 150 sites with a full inventory and analysis. The volunteers would do simpler but more frequent surveys of additional sites. At present, EcoWatch volunteers are monitoring 800 sites, returning to most every year or two, depending on the program.

Volunteer Training
Brandi Sangunett is a trainer whose job is to recruit and train the army of volunteers. Sangunett came to EcoWatch through Ameri-Corps. Founded by former President Bill Clinton, AmeriCorps is a “domestic Peace Corps” that places students in low-paying service jobs, then rewards them with college funding. EcoWatch benefited from AmeriCorps students for the first four years of its existence. In 1997, when Sangunett joined ForestWatch, she was working on degrees in zoology and geography. For her, the initial hook was the college funding. A fascination with the work has kept her in the program.

Sangunett interacts with a fluctuating number of volunteers—about 150 at the moment—who monitor sites spread over nine counties in the northern part of the state. To recruit volunteers, Sangunett has learned to speak out in television and radio interviews, present slide shows, and promote EcoWatch at environmental events. “You have to be a PR person,” she said. Every year, Sangunett and other trainers teach monitoring methods and plant identification both in the classroom and in the field. The citizen scientists must become competent at identifying indicator plants. In ForestWatch, these include disturbance-sensitive natives such as Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and common natives such as wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata), as well as invaders such as buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica).

Volunteers learn to set up 100-meter transect lines, establish a sampling area, and record data. They use cheap equipment, which they make themselves or borrow from Eco-Watch. For instance, they buy a piece of PVC pipe and rig it up with cross hairs made of string to serve as an ocular tube for measuring under-story light levels. The intensive training, the travelling to and establishment of their site, and the collection of data and recording of it later are a lot to ask of volunteers. The turnover rate is high, and those who keep with it often have a passion for the land.

Forty-six year old landscaper Matt Kos and his wife Karen, an accountant, were born in the Chicago area and live 15 minutes from the two sites they have monitored for three years. They drive out in the spring to count wildflowers and back again in the fall to measure tree girth and monitor shrubs and vines. Despite the training, their first monitoring expedition was not easy. It took them three hours to set up their 100-meter transects. Frustration levels rose as they struggled to keep the rope straight in a heavily-treed forest. Now that the stakes are in, they enjoy returning to the same sites. The sampling takes all day, but they pack a lunch, bring their lawn chairs to stretch out, and listen to forest sounds during the noon break.

The Kos’ intend to keep monitoring their sites into the foreseeable future. “You make the commitment,” Kos said. Predictably, not all volunteers are as resolute. The bad news is that 40 percent of the volunteers leave; the good news is that 60 percent of them stay. Holding on to volunteers remains one of the ongoing challenges, especially during the long lulls between monitoring days. EcoWatch encourages volunteers to stay involved by presenting special events during the off seasons—tree walks, slide shows, and volunteer appreciation nights. They are experimenting with giving rewards such as lapel pins, t-shirts, and baseball caps to keep people motivated. “Frankly,” said Pete Jackson, the coordinator for ForestWatch, “a lot of our best volunteers bring their motivation with them. We just give them the opportunity to learn and participate in real world science.”

Quality Assurance
From the beginning the goal has been science, not a learning experience — although that is a by-product. Neither has the goal been public relations, though that is important. EcoWatch has a stringent quality assurance program. “This is not like a lot of volunteer programs that are focused primarily on education,” Jackson said. “The main reason for our being is to collect scientifically valid data. That’s our bottom line.”

EcoWatch’s quality assurance involves much painstaking double-checking. The data entry form includes verification boxes that encourage volunteers to go over their forms for completeness and accuracy. Trainers double-check the forms, and after that, Alice Brandon, the Quality Assurance Officer, looks for anomalies. Volunteers bring back specimen samples as proof of correct plant identification, and Brandon verifies 30 percent of those samples. “The goal is 80 percent accuracy,” Brandon said. “We are there with most of the taxa.”

Above and beyond all this checking and rechecking, EcoWatch conducts shadow studies, where trainers collect data from a site within a day or so of a volunteer’s effort and then compare results. Also, scientists from the Illinois Natural History Survey sample a cross-section of volunteer sites and compare their findings.

Brandon believes the reiterative checks and duplicate studies put EcoWatch on the forefront of volunteer monitoring quality control. “I think we’re setting a standard here for data quality,” she said.

In fact, quality control of volunteer data has become an important element in volunteer monitoring nationwide. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Volunteer Monitor Coordinator Alice Mayio, volunteer monitoring is “moving toward a new level of sophistication.” In an EPA national survey of volunteer monitoring groups, 44 percent of the respondents said they already had quality assurance plans.

It was not like that in the beginning, however. In the United States, volunteer monitoring started 30 years ago with environmental groups looking for ways to influence politics. By the late 1970s, the Izaak Walton League set up stream monitoring protocols, which provided better standards. Most groups monitored streams and lakes, taking simple measurements such as water clarity, temperature, and pH.

As quality assurance efforts multiplied, the EPA started to pay attention. In 1988, the EPA held its first volunteer monitoring conference, which attracted 20 or 30 people. Now, conferences draw as many as 200-300 participants. The EPA’s most recent National Directory of Volunteer Environmental Monitoring Programs estimates that over half a million volunteers currently operate in America.

Since the early days, volunteer monitors have had a hard time getting scientists or regulators to accept their data. Volunteer monitoring developed a reputation, one it still holds today, of being more about public education than about science. The fact that 46 percent of volunteers surveyed by the EPA are either teachers or students lends credibility to this belief. Yet the emphasis has shifted toward making data usable — and making sure it gets used.

A couple of years into the program, EcoWatch received evidence that their quality control measures were working. In 1998, macroinvertebrate specialist Edward DeWalt, an Illinois Natural History Survey scientist, did an overview study comparing volunteer and professional data in the RiverWatch program. On the whole, he found that volunteer data agreed well with professional data. DeWalt did turn up some areas that needed improvement. Although volunteers performed well at identifying most insects, they were having trouble with accurate identification of bloodworms (Glycera dibranchiate), whirligig beetles (Coleoptera: Gyrinidae), and torpedo mayflies (Ephemeroptera: Oligoneuridae). More important, he found the rating system used by the volunteers tended to overrate the streams’ health. DeWalt suggested measures that could help make their assessments more accurate.

Improving Volunteer Protocols
DeWalt’s conclusions were encouraging and his suggestions constructive. It would not be the first time EcoWatch had to adjust the volunteer protocols. When ForestWatch began, the monitoring program was designed by ecologists who were interested in measuring the forest edge effects. Then a new group of scientists at the Illinois Natural History Survey changed the focus to that of measuring trends in the interior. “Pragmatically, this posed a problem for us,” Jackson said. “We were already training volunteers to establish their sites from the edge.” After some head scratching, a solution emerged: keep the same transects, but monitor sampling sites on the interior ends of the transects rather than at the forest buffer.

To improve quality and usability of the data, adjustments are continually made. That is one reason the Kos’ come to the ForestWatch refresher course every spring. “Sometimes they change the procedures,” Kos said. “They’re still fine-tuning it.”

Scientists and managers are just beginning to discover EcoWatch’s volunteer data, not only in the EPA by those compiling water quality reports, but also among DNR sister groups in charge of watershed projects and within some local environmental groups as well. Most important, EcoWatch data appeared in the recently released CTAP II, the second state-of-the-state report. Five years of combined professional and volunteer monitoring provided state officials with information they previously lacked. Now they know, for instance, that statewide, 70 percent of shrubs are non-native species and that most grasslands contain 20 different species, of which 7.5 on average are non-native.

This ongoing monitoring will become even more valuable as stewards try different management strategies. Managers will know, for example, whether burning a prairie increases or decreases the number of native plants or whether pulling garlic mustard contains or spreads it. “When it comes to natural history data, the value of it just grows every year,” said Curtiss. “Over time, it’s worth its weight in gold.”

After five years, Illinois EcoWatch is still finding its way. Monitoring of the various biomes has been phased in over time, starting with RiverWatch and followed by Forest-Watch and PrairieWatch. WetlandWatch and SoilWatch are under development, while UrbanWatch (urban green spaces) will be implemented on a limited basis this year.

It is no surprise that EcoWatch faces an ongoing struggle to maintain funding. “We really pulled this together with bailing wire and chewing gum,” said Curtiss. The AmeriCorps funds have disappeared, shrinking the training staff in half, down to eleven. The EPA trust fund helps as does state money for ecosystem protection. “Unfortunately volunteer monitoring isn’t free,” said Alice Mayio. It is, however, relatively cheap. According to an EcoWatch study, it costs $500 a year to monitor one site using volunteers. The cost for professional monitoring of one site is $3,000. Professionals do a more in-depth job, but the volunteer data, by its sheer volume, adds invaluably to our knowledge base.

Five years ago, Illinois EcoWatch started a daunting statewide monitoring project, the depth and breadth of which had never been attempted before. They have had to correct mistakes along the way, but they did some things right. One was to get the scientists to the table right up front. Scientists were key players in determining site selection, what was to be monitored, and how to do it. When problems arose, the scientists helped find solutions. There are still some doubters within the halls of the Natural History Survey offices, but they are a dying breed. The majority are now grateful for the information and are fully engaged in helping volunteers become better scientists. “The level of involvement of our scientists,” said Pete Jackson, “that’s what makes us unique.”

For more information:

Pete Jackson (pjackson@dnrmail.state.il.us)

Dana Curtis (dcurtiss@dnrmail.state.il.us)

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