Principles of Vegetation Measurement & Assessment
and Ecological Monitoring & Analysis


Veg Sampling
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The Monitoring Steps

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Readings & Instructions

  1. The section covers Chapters 2 and 4 of Measuring and Monitoring Plant Communities.
  2. This lesson provides an introduction to what the term monitoring means as it is applied to natural resources. Brown text highlights key words.
  3. Read through the Text and work through the Summary Questions at the end of the text.

Overview of Monitoring Steps

Monitoring: The Main Steps

Large Photo of Larix occidentalisThe main steps involved in planning and implementing a monitoring protocol are:

  • Complete Background Tasks

  • Develop Objectives

  • Design and Implement Management

  • Design the Monitoring Methodology

  • Implement Monitoring as a Pilot Study

  • Implement Monitoring

  • Report and Use Results


These seven steps highlight how we go about monitoring in natural resources. Essentially, rather than taking measurements and “fishing” for relationships in the data; we start with what we perceive is the likely management objective and activity and do each step to see how we get there. 

Complete Background Tasks

The first step is often skipped with dire consequences. Before one starts dreaming up plans and creating a monitoring protocol it is important to know what information already exists. What information is in the files?  What are the overall management priorities? What has been published on the topic?


Setting Management and Monitoring Objectives

When one knows the basic lay of the land, it is time to start honing in on a specific objective.  This important step is called “defining the problem” or "setting objectives" and it is not usually as easy as it sounds.  A monitoring objective must be stated clearly with a focus on specific attributes and directions of change.  A monitoring objective like "I want to see if the plant community is changing" is not very useful. Specificity is needed. For example, "To determine if the herbaceous biomass and fine fuel load at the end of the growing season in an open ponderosa pine forest is maintained at a level below 1,000 kg/ha in response to mid-season grazing by cattle.


A popular movement of setting "SMART" objectives in the business planning world can be applied to natural resource management. SMART objectives are:

  • Specific – Objectives should specifically state what you want to achieve on the land you are managing.

  • Measurable – It must be possible to measure whether you are meeting the objectives or not.

  • Achievable - Are the objectives you set, achievable in your current setting? Consider environmental constraints, societal expectations, economic parameters, legal requirements, and technological limitations.

  • Realistic – Set objectives that you can realistically achieve given the natural and management context of your situation.

  • Time – Set a time horizon for to meet management objectives.


A clear example of how to set land management and monitoring objectives is presented in an online module called "Rangeland Monitoring on Western Uplands" developed by the University of Arizona.  This example is very specific to ranching and grazing. However, it is worth exploring as a possible way to set objectives. (You may need to log in to access this web site. You can log in as a "guest" if you want to avoid giving your name or location).


Several good examples of setting management objectives are offered in Chapter 4 (pages 46-48) in Measuring and Monitoring Plant Communities.


Setting a monitoring objective is not an easy task as sometimes we see symptoms rather than identifying the underlying problem. For example, we may be interested in productivity in a mountain meadow and our monitoring may reveale that production of grasses and forbs is decreasing over the last decated. However, knowing this trend does not reveal the underlying cause. For example, soil moisture may be becoming increasingly limited because of encroachment of conifer trees into the meadow.


Monitoring: Management vs. Research

In research, it is very common to monitor the area we are interested in and an adjacent area that exhibits most of the same features but that is not subject to the actions or treatments we are studying. These additional non-changing samples are called controls. The ability to consistently observe notable or significant differences between the treated (i.e., subject to change) area and those that should not change (i.e., the controls) enables scientists to be very confident that their results are valid.

The intensity and scale of vegetation measurements aimed at assessing management actions will differ from those designed for scientific research.  A manager may only want a ball-park, best-guess or estimate of vegetation conditions, whereas scientists often seek to take measurements as consistent and accurate as possible. To highlight the difference, scientists will expend considerable resources to assess the effects of a treatment. For example, a good scientific study may have 40 sites for "each" pre-event control, pre-event treatment, post-event control, and post-event treatment. Many researchers would then repeat this methodology a few times over subsequent years, to ensure that what they observed wasn't a fluke in a given year. As you can imagine, although such research may provide very detailed information of why an observed event is occurring, it takes a long time and may realistically take too long for the more immediate needs of land managers.

Summary Questions

  1. What are the main steps you would take to plan and implement a monitoring protocol?
  2. Explain the difference between a symptom and an underlying problem?
  3. What resources are important to consider when planning a monitoring protocol?
  4. Why are controls useful?

Advanced Questions:

  1. Discuss whether the presence of invasive species appearing in a rangeland after wildfires are symptoms or problems and discuss how those species may have been introduced.
  2. In the case of bark beetles affecting trees in a forest what are common symptoms associated with this problem?

***These questions are just to get you thinking. You do not need to write formal answers to these questions. But, if you do not feel comfortable with answers to these questions you will have trouble with the questions in the assignment.

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