In the early 1990's, a report published by the Critical Trends Assessment Program (CTAP) in Illinois concluded that ecosystems were declining as a result of fragmentation, the introduction of exotic species, and other forms of stress Scientists identified a need for a standardized data collection process by which data on ecological trends would be collected in each of the major ecosystems. In response to this identified need, the Illinois EcoWatch Network was established in 1995. The organization's Web site explains its mission: "EcoWatch's primary mandate is to collect scientifically valid data on statewide and regional ecosystem conditions, using trained volunteers. Its secondary goals are to educate and provide stewardship opportunities to people of all ages."
The biggest success of the EcoWatch program thus far is the use of volunteers to collect scientifically valid data. CTAP is a partnership between EcoWatch and the Illinois Natural History Survey, whose scientists use the data collected by EcoWatch volunteers for trend assessment. EcoWatch has a formal quality assurance officer who inspects the data to ensure that the volunteer data are of sufficient quality to be accepted by scientists.
Organization and Volunteer Program
The EcoWatch program has three main programs: River Watch, which began in 1995, Forest Watch, which began in 1998, and Prairie Watch which began in 2000. Each has a coordinator and volunteers specifically trained in the particular ecosystem. Each program has a core of indicator organisms that volunteers monitor to determine general habitat quality. RiverWatch volunteers conduct a habitat survey and a biological survey which focuses on aquatic macroinvertebrates as indicators of stream condition. ForestWatch volunteers monitor trees, shrubs and the ground layer; indicator taxa include both "disturbance sensitive" native plant indicators and invasive indicators. "Disturbance sensitive" means the plants react easily to heightened disturbances due to human activities. "Invasive species" are usually nonnative species that have negative effects on a new ecosystem. These indicators of forest conditions are used because their presence and extent provide an indication of the condition and quality of an ecosystem. Prairie Watch volunteers monitor prairie vegetation at both remnant and reconstructed sites, and monitor both disturbance-sensitive and invasive plant species, as with ForestWatch; in addition, prairie monitoring includes a butterfly survey. Although EcoWatch is primarily a long-term trend detection program and not an "early detection" program per se, EcoWatch volunteers are periodically asked to keep an eye out for certain new invasive species on the rise in the state (e.g., kudzu, Oriental bittersweet). In addition, a new early detection program for plants is being developed in Illinois that EcoWatch volunteers will be a part of.
Recruitment and Training
Volunteers are recruited through press releases, newsletters, and the program Web site, and all volunteers must attend a 6-8 hour training session (including both a classroom and a field component) before they can monitor for an EcoWatch program. Subsequent opportunities are regularly offered to review procedures and identification or organisms.
EcoWatch has trained over 3000 people, 1800 of whom are currently active. The volunteers monitor over 400 active sites. They have a waiting list of people who are interested in being volunteers. While state budget cuts have reduced staff size in recent years, the program staff has been able to support existing volunteers. In 2004 new volunteer support staff will be added, which will provide an opportunity for the program to improve volunteer support and resume growth where needed. The use of volunteer monitors makes EcoWatch a very cost-effective and an attractive alternative to costly government programs, however the administrative side of the program will likely remain a staff responsibility.
Technical Data Collection
Once the volunteers have been trained, staff provide support for volunteers in order to improve their technical skills. For example, a staff member will accompany a volunteer when they go to monitor if they ask for help or if it is their first time. In accordance with program quality assurance procedures, the program quality assurance officer routinely inspects volunteer data through volunteer reference collections, comparison studies, and shadow monitoring of volunteer sites.
A key part of any volunteer program is that it needs to be sustainable. For the first few years, the EcoWatch program had a temporary budget composed of grants from the AmeriCorps. This was a temporary source of funding; the program then had to find alternative means of financial support. This has included primarily agency budget support, although grants from outside sources are another potential source of funding.
One challenge for the EcoWatch program has been to keep on top of the various administrative duties associated with the coordination of a statewide volunteer organization. Volunteers are generally attracted to the monitoring component of the program, as it offers them an opportunity to connect with nature while doing something to help restore and protect it. This commitment is such that few volunteers are able to provide assistance with the various administrative duties of the program in addition to the monitoring function.
Some key advice for a new volunteer organization: "think about what questions you want to answer." Fads sweep across the country, however, when starting a volunteer organization, you need to prioritize your goals and focus on what is really important. Time is precious.
Second, "keep it simple." No decision will make everyone happy. It is easy to make programs large and all-encompassing when they do not need to be. A complicated organization can overwhelm volunteers.
Third, long-term goals and plans are necessary if an organization wants to stay afloat. Science requires long-term studies of processes, trends, and systems and the answers are not always easy. Years of research and patience are necessary for effective studies. An organization must have a plan of how to keep itself active and engaged in the scientific world even if it runs into bad times.
The EcoWatch Network has gone through good times and bad, experienced the difficulties of starting up and budget cuts. But through all, it has remained viable as a long-term monitoring program. Volunteer trend data on invasive species and other organisms will help with the development of policies directed at restoring the ecosystems of the state and mitigating the adverse impacts of invasive species.
Dana Curtiss - EcoWatch Network Coordinator
Shelly Fuller - River Watch Coordinator
Alice Brandon - EcoWatch QA/QC Officer
Pete Jackson - Forest/Prairie Watch Coordinator
Matt Buffington - ForestWatch/PrairieWatch Education Coordinator/Data Analyst
Habitats Monitored: Rivers, Forests, Prairies
Organizer: Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Data: available online; periodic reports are available to the public. Used for statewide and regional trends assessment.
Report prepared by: Allyson Ladley