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Building Trust One Tree at a Time

By: Howard Hallman


My Fellows Project is to create a volunteer forest monitoring program tailored to Summit County, Colorado. I am assisted by a core group of dedicated collaborators. Our goal is that this community endeavor be citizen-driven, self-sustaining, credible, and meaningful. Over the last year we’ve achieved most of our immediate objectives. I should be happy, but I’m not, at least not yet.

We have fifty-one forest monitor volunteers (citizen scientists)…many loyal to a fault. They want to help our forests. They want to do good science. They hope to shed light on what is and isn’t good forest management for the 21stCentury. Within the context of hotter temperatures, more drought, and wildfire danger, they see themselves making a difference in our little neck of the woods. Our volunteers are a talented bunch. We have retired nuclear engineers, satellite engineers, executives, management consultants, science teachers, and college professors. We have foresters and monitoring professionals. They are committed to long-term monitoring for at least a decade. At this point, most have already completed 2015 monitoring season training.

We have the support and commitment of Friends of the Dillon Ranger District (FDRD), a highly- regarded, local, forest-focused non-profit. We have initial buy-in from the U.S. Forest Service.

So far we have 204 monitoring plots situated throughout Summit County on U.S. Forest Service land, with more in the works. Plots are in a wide range of forest types and elevations. Strategic plot placement to achieve meaningful results is a high priority.

So why am I unhappy? There is unfinished business. An underlying goal of our volunteer monitoring program is that managers and researchers use the data we generate to inform future forest management policies. Further, we are hoping that future management policies will be based on local forest conditions, rather than relying solely on uniform practices.  Our volunteers trust that their work will be accepted and used, that it will be deemed credible. That hasn’t happened yet.

We continue to make our procedures more scientifically credible. We are striving to get the technical side right, up-front. We have standardized our monitoring practices, as we cannot afford to change our methodology years into the project, potentially invalidating years of data. Our monitoring protocol is increasingly simple and straightforward in order to not overwork our volunteers. Yet for all our hard work, we have not yet achieved a substantial level of credibility with forest managers or researchers. That’s why I’m still not happy. I’m impatient for the recognition I believe our program and our volunteers deserve.

Some may feel that citizen science is little more than a “feel good” endeavor, and that real forestry should be left to the experts, or that citizen science is a threat to long established forestry thinking. With that in mind our most difficult challenge may be the perception of credibility. In order to earn credibility we must first establish trust.

Absence of trust can be a big impediment to collaboration. More particularly we (human beings) all have an agenda, a cause, or a bias going into the process. It’s human nature. It’s primeval. I understand that. We want to protect our own turf first, then that of those around us. If working together is in our best interest we may consider doing so, but only if we come out ahead or at least “even”; and then only if we can trust that the other guy won’t exploit us. While we may talk a good game it’s tough to collaborate when we sense a threat.

I wonder whether citizen science may sometimes be perceived as a threat to the forestry establishment. In fact the threat may be more than just a perception. Citizen science in the internet age can be a real disrupter. Long-held assumptions may be challenged.

While trust building can take many forms, I see our Summit County Volunteer Forest Monitoring Project gaining trust on an incremental basis: one forester at a time, dataset by dataset, one well-monitored plot, then another. In short, we are building trust and credibility one tree at a time. Trees grow slow, so does trust.

I’m impatient and “unhappy” but increasingly optimistic.