I was chatting with a friend of mine last night, and she mentioned wanting to do research on using herps (reptiles and amphibians) as bio-indicators to measure the impacts of land use.
I said, “wow, good call!” and she asked why. So I thought I’d explain what I think about this here. Right now, we’re in a situation in the US where most ecological monitoring happens through universities. And that means that the barriers to involvement in monitoring are pretty high. There’s a financial boundary in many cases, but maybe even more importantly there’s a cultural boundary where people not socially/culturally connected to the university system are likely to have no contact with observing/monitoring their landscape.
I think that’s a problem for a few reasons. One is, it keeps people disconnected from the natural world, and specifically from their local place. And that also means it helps keep decision-making power about land use in the hands of the people who currently have it – mostly local governments and large landowners – who are by and large very, very disconnected from their ecology as well! Not to mention that it’s not impossible to imagine future scenarios where the university system changes a lot or even ceases to exist in its present form because of energy scarcity and/or an even bigger financial crisis. And then land stewardship would fall back, again, to local governments and large landowners (and of course the federal government in many parts of the West), who in many places are, again, unequipped to make real stewardship-driven decisions.
So there’s a strong case to be made for decentralizing ecological monitoring and land use decision-making into the hands of local families, neighborhoods, communities, towns, etc. But one of the additional barriers to this happening is that a lot of ecological monitoring as it’s currently practiced basically requires university resources to be collected and interpreted. You need lab equipment and/or advanced degrees to gather and understand the data. So the goal of democratizing land stewardship would be really furthered by having simple assessment methods that don’t depend on those things for people to use.
Which is why counting herps is so cool – they’re very sensitive indicator species and with a tiny amount of training anyone can do it. And everyone loves finding frogs and turtles, right? My friends at White Pine Programs in the Mount Agamenticus area of the southern Maine seacoast have been doing herp watches for many years with lots of local family involvement. Plus, this. Let’s keep doing more of this and learn how to do it really well across different eco-social landscapes.