Monitor has the same origin as admonition, which means a warning or caution, and is derived from the Latin monitio, a “reminder.” With respect to repairing prairie remnants, monitoring means keeping watch over the process so that we can be warned if our behavior causes the ecosystem to deviate from the desired course. Thus, on the one hand, monitoring informs us of activities that may be too harsh and could offend the system, and, on the other, it helps us conserve the options embodied within the system for future generations and ourselves. Because monitoring, however helpful, is an illusive, abstract concept to many people, I use the personal pronoun you or your in various parts of the following discussion to add a measure of concreteness to the concept.
Good monitoring has seven steps: (1) crafting a vision and goals, (2) making a preliminary inventory, (3) modeling your understanding, (4) writing a caretaking plan with clearly defined objectives, (5)observing implementation, (6) verifying effectiveness, and (7) validating the outcome(s).
Step 1 is crafting a carefully worded vision and attendant goals that state clearly and concisely what you want as a future condition. This necessary first step ensures that:
1. you know where you want to go;
2. why you want to go there;
3. what you think the journey will be like.
You use the vision and its goals as the major decision point to determine the direction of all actions and to evaluate (monitor) their consequences so that you know whether in fact your journey is even possible as you imagined it and what its outcome might be. What, for example, do you want the prairie remnant to look like and function like when you have it repaired? What are your short-, medium-, and long-term goals for the remnant?1 Stating a vision and goals is paramount if the next steps in monitoring are to be successful.
Step 2 is taking a preliminary inventory—that is, carefully observing and understanding the initial situation, what is available here, now. Taking inventory requires asking three questions:
1. What exists now in the prairie remnant of interest, before
anything is purposefully altered?
2. What condition is it in?
3. What is the prognosis for its future repair?
Even though preliminary monitoring may require asking multiple questions, the outcome is still a single realization.
Step 3 is modeling your understanding. This step involves configuring the current knowledge of the prairie remnant you want to repair into a conceptual model—an explicit map of your understanding, as it were. One or more computer models could augment such a map. Although it is critical in this exercise to assume at the outset that the map represents your best understanding of the remnant as a functional prairie ecosystem, it is equally critical to have the humility to assume that the map is flawed and that your understanding is incomplete. In this way, the viability of the vision and its goals, as well as the model itself, are continually tested and improved. As the model is improved, so is your knowledge of the prairie remnant with which you are working.
Step 4 requires that each prairie remnant have its own treatment plan in which all the particulars of its care, including objectives, are laid out. An objective is a specific statement of intended accomplishment. It is attainable, has a reference to time, is observable and measurable, and has an associated cost. The following are additional attributes of an objective:
1. It starts with an action verb.
2. It specifies a single outcome or result to be accomplished.
3. It specifies a date for completion.
4. It is framed in positive terms.
5. It is as specific and quantitative as possible and thus lends
itself to evaluation;
6. It specifies only what, where, when, quantity, and duration.
7. It avoids mentioning the “why” and the “how.”
8. It is product oriented.
Once you have determined your objective(s), you not only will be able to—but also must—answer the following questions concisely:
1. What do I want?
2. Where do I want it?
3. When do I want it?
4. How much (or how many) do I want?
5. For how long do I want it (or them)?
If a component is missing, you may achieve your desire by default—but not by design.
As a simple illustration, imagine asking a product-oriented rancher what his main objective is for grazing his cattle on public lands. If he were completely honest, his answer would be, “I want all of the grass to fatten my cattle.” If we break his statement into its components as questions, it looks like this:
1. What do you want? “The grass.”
2. Where do you want it? “In my cattle.”
3. When do you want it? “Now.”
4. How much do you want? “All of it.”
5. How long do you want it for? “As long as it lasts with continual
Only when you can answer all these questions concisely do you know where you want to go in repairing the relic prairie and the value of going there, and only then can you calculate the probability of arrival at your goal. Next you must determine the cost in both money and labor, make the commitment to bear it, and then commit yourself to keeping your commitment.
Step 5 is observing the implementation of a project on the ground by asking: Did we do what we said we were going to do? Although this type of monitoring is just documenting what was done to the prairie, it is critical. Without it, it may not be possible to figure out what went awry (if anything did or does), how or why it went askew, or how to remedy it. In addition, the next generation would have little or no idea of what you did to the parcel of land or why and thus no way to figure out what to do in order to remedy a problem (such as the appearance of an invasive plant) that has arisen since you either retired and moved away or died.
Step 6 is verifying the effectiveness of your actions on the ground. Such verification assesses the implementation of your objectives—not your vision or goals. On the one hand, your vision and its attendant goals describe the desired future condition of the prairie for which you are aiming; they are qualitative and are not designed to be quantified. On the other hand, your objective is quantitative and so is specifically designed to be quantifiable.
Monitoring to assess the effectiveness of an objective requires asking: Is the objective specific enough? Are the results clearly quantifiable and within specified scales of time?
Systematically monitoring the effectiveness of your project with the aid of indicators provides information feedback that allows you to ascertain whether you are in fact headed toward the attainment of your vision, maintaining your current condition, or moving away from your vision.
A good indicator helps you to recognize potential problems in repairing a relic prairie and provides insight into possible solutions. What you choose to measure (say, the height of the various species of grasses), how you choose to measure it (with what instruments, in what season, and how often), and how you choose to interpret the grasses’ recovery from disturbance—such as livestock grazing—would have a tremendous effect on how you construe the biological viability of the prairie in the long term, as well as on how you understand what happens over time.
Indicators close the circle of action by demanding that you come back to your beginning premise and ask (reflect on) whether, through your actions, you are better off now than when you started:
1. if so, how;
2. if not, why not;
3. if not, can the situation be remedied;
4. if so, how;
5. if not, why not;
6. and so on.
Here a caveat is necessary. Traditional one-dimensional indicators, which measure the apparent health of a single condition (sunflowers in one prairie remnant bordering a corn field), ignore the complex relationships among soil, water, air quality, and the relationship of the remnant to its surrounding landscape. When each component is viewed as a separate issue and monitored in isolation, measurements tend to become skewed and lead to ineffective decisions with respect to the biophysical integrity of the grassland. Therefore, if an accurate assessment of repair and sustainability is to be achieved, viable indicators need to be multi-dimensional and must measure the quality of relationships in the form of biophysical feedback loops among the components of the prairie being monitored.
Only with relevant indicators and a systemic way of tracking them is it possible to make a prognosis for the remnant’s future based on your vision and goals (which state the desired condition) and on the collective objectives (which determine how the goals will be achieved and when). Likewise, relevant indicators and a systemic way of tracking them are a prerequisite to making the necessary target corrections because only now can you know what corrections to make.
Step 7 is validating the outcome of on-the-ground-activities, which is considered by many to be research. This assessment involves testing the assumptions that went into the development of the objectives and the models they are based on.
Validating on-the-ground-actions may require asking such questions as:
1. Why didn’t the results come out as expected?
2. What does this mean with respect to our conceptual model of how
the prairie works versus how it actually works?
3. Will altering our approach make any difference in the outcome?
4. If not, why not?
5. If so, how and why?
6. What target corrections do we need to make in order to bring our
model in line with how the system actually works?
Validation is necessary for determining the array of possible target corrections. In addition, monitoring for validation may have wide application for repairing not only other remnant grasslands but also other ecosystems.
Yet, even with the best of intentions, there is a weakness in monitoring that has be overcome if the results are to serve the purpose for which they were designed. This weakness is a lack of commitment to the long-term, costly feedback loop of information that must be relentlessly pursued if monitoring is to fulfill its role as an archive of purpose, action, and achievement. Whatever the stated purpose, the results of your local actions affect the whole world in some way.
How, you might wonder, is that possible. Well, place a pencil on a table and observe it. Now, pick up the pencil and put it down somewhere else. You have just changed the face of the whole Earth—never to be the same again because it’s impossible to replace the pencil in the exact position that you had originally put it. You have just met your ability to change the world, which you do every minute of every day. The question is: How do you (I) change it—and why?
Ultimately, to make any ecosystem repair work over the long term, we must reevaluate our pet ideas, question the certainty of our knowledge, control the unchecked exploitation of the Earth (with its resultant pollution, especially that of the atmosphere), and control our human population. Unless we do, humanity will inevitably cause its own demise—despite the number of prairie acres that have been repaired.
For the sake of a sustainable Earth, the products and services of which meet our biophysical needs for a good quality of life, we need to understand—and accept with humility—that we are not in control of a single component of Nature, much as we might wish it otherwise. Rather, we are in a mutual partnership, where the respect and care we give the Earth is not only a reflection of the respect and care we give one another and ourself but also is reciprocated in kind.
1. To fully understand the visioning process, read: Chris Maser. Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 1998.
Text © by Chris Maser 2012. All rights reserved.