Long-term, Place-based, Ecological Monitoring

Science Center Objects

For over 30 years we have monitored the ecosystem dynamics of the mesas and mountains of northern New Mexico, based at Bandelier National Monument and the New Mexico state office for the Bureau of Land Management. Our work provides land managers and scientists with diverse information on landscape responses to climate and disturbances (fire, drought, insects) such as vegetation and erosion changes, piñon-juniper demography and mortality, weekly tree growth, ground-dwelling arthropod population fluctuations, and detailed ecohydrological info. Being co-located with our management partners, we are able to directly interpret ongoing research through high-quality science-based conversations. We also contribute to broader research networks at regional, national, and global scales.

Adaptive, science-based land management—in which information on status and trends in an ecosystem is continually collected, analyzed, and communicated—is generally accepted as the desired approach for managing ecosystems on public lands. Such ecological knowledge is often time- and place-specific. If there are substantial knowledge gaps in this realm, land managers struggle to make sound science-based decisions. On the other hand, when scientists can interact onsite with managers on a daily basis, effective communication, application, and follow-through of relevant science are greatly facilitated. This is where a place-based approach to science can help.

In its role as the scientific resource and advisor for Department of the Interior land management agencies, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is fostering a place-based approach that co-locates some USGS researchers onsite and long-term with public land managers.  Several are stationed in northern New Mexico, at the USGS Fort Collins Science Center's New Mexico Landscapes Field Station, where USGS scientists Craig D. Allen and Ellis Margolis are co-located with National Park Service managers at Bandelier National Monument and BLM land managers in Santa Fe.  These place-based USGS researchers routinely work with diverse local land managers to collaboratively propose, conduct, arrange, oversee, facilitate, and communicate about needed ecological research and monitoring, working to foster high-quality, science-based conversations on natural resource management issues among land managers as well as society at large.

The advantages of place-based scientists to land managers are many. Scientists like Allen, Margolis, and Haffey act as a bridge between research and management, working to identify the information needs of management problems, secure external research funding, foster collaborations with outside institutions to conduct needed research, and communicate research findings quickly and effectively to local managers and the public. Place-based scientists develop substantial expertise in the ecology of their particular landscape. Eventually this allows them to become information brokers of the deep-rooted institutional knowledge that comes from being in a place long enough to learn its lessons and grow familiar with its natural and cultural rhythms and history.

While location in the same office and inclusion on the same working team with land managers is essential for integrating science and management, maintaining scientific impartiality and a degree of independence is also important. This is the unique opportunity afforded to USGS scientists, who are outside of the land-management agency’s direct supervisory hierarchy of land management agencies, but can be located near or within various DOI public lands. These scientists can serve in the needed scientific advisory and coordination role, maintain scientific impartiality and independence, and also have access to the full range of science expertise and support services of the USGS. The result is a team effort that balances scientific objectivity with commitment and responsibility to management.

In addition, on-site science programs generate unique opportunities to conduct high-quality ecological research. The spectacular landscapes and special ecological circumstances of Department of the Interior land management units are a natural attraction for collaborative research with top-notch scientists and graduate students from academia and federal research centers—with place-based scientists present on-site to initiate, coordinate, and lead the research efforts. Indeed the long-term, integrative, multidisciplinary datasets and research approaches that tend to emerge from place-focused research programs are increasingly recognized to be scientifically valuable at national and international scales. This impact occurs in part because such programs remain relatively scarce, and because the scientific work has demonstrable relevance to both local situations and pressing environmental issues of much broader application. In this way, place-based science can complement the valuable efforts of scientists in off-site research centers, where other opportunities exist and are better realized.

Good examples of on-site, place-focused research programs are found at a number of National Park Service units, where individual USGS scientists have devoted major portions of their careers to working in particular landscapes (ranging from Glacier and Canyonlands to Sequoia and Redwoods national parks). Other agencies have also experimented with the idea, including the U.S. Forest Service. Such examples suggest that developing long-term, landscape-scale, on-site science programs could be a cost-effective way to meet critical information needs for many public land managers. Establishing additional place-based scientists could foster the development of land management organizations that institutionalize scientific approaches to learning, collaboration, open dialogue, and continual improvement—agencies that truly implement science-based adaptive management.