The Wilderness Institute's Citizen Science Program FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

The Wilderness Institute was established by a group of scientists, educators, public land managers, and conservationists in 1975 to provide wilderness information, research, and interdisciplinary education. Housed within the University of Montana's College of Forestry and Conservation, the Wilderness Institute has responded to a variety of wildland issues and needs over the decades by providing objective information and wildland research. Current programs include the Wilderness and Civilization undergraduate program, the Wilderness Issues Lecture Series, the Wilderness Distance Education program,, and the Citizen Science Program.

Every summer, the Wilderness Institute organizes a citizen monitoring and restoration project. This Citizen Science Program is a partnership project involving local community volunteers, non-profit organizations, the Forest Service, and the University of Montana. Community volunteers work with trained field leaders to monitor wilderness character, conduct recreation site inventories, and carry out restoration efforts in backcountry areas. Since the program's inception in 2005, over 350 volunteers have helped conduct monitoring and restoration in seven Wilderness Areas and seven Wilderness Study Areas in Montana and Idaho.

To date, there is no comprehensive on-the-ground data that can be used as a point of reference for assessing ecological, physical, and social trends for Montana’s Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas. This reflects both limited resources allocated to land management agencies for this purpose, as well as the absence of standardized procedures for quantifying wilderness character. This project has helped to remedy these deficiencies by spear-heading the collaborative development of protocols for monitoring selected elements of wilderness character that our field leaders then implement with the help of citizen volunteers. Monitoring data enables land managers to make informed decisions, allocate limited resources efficiently, and effectively and credibly steward public lands. Of equal importance, this program also provides an opportunity to broaden citizen engagement in wilderness stewardship. Engaging volunteers in data collection builds community capacity for future monitoring and restoration work, improves local knowledge of National Forest stewardship, nurtures relationships between communities and the Forest Service, and elevates the public dialogue about wilderness management.

Increasing cuts in forest service budgets have resulted in reduced funds available for wilderness stewardship. Each year we work closely with the Region 1 Wilderness Program Manager and National Forest wilderness staff to identify regional wilderness stewardship priorities appropriate for addressing with our volunteer-powered field crews. From 2005-2008 we helped wilderness managers in Montana and Idaho complete critical recreation site and weed inventories. From 2009-2012, under mounting political controversy, we completed initial monitoring of all seven of Montana’s congressionally designated Wilderness Study Areas. In 2013, we revisited sites in two wildernesses surveyed by our program in 2005, taking targeted action on new weed invasions, and collecting data on wilderness character measures that reflect emerging regional forest service monitoring standards. In 2014 we will implement critical trail-clearing and monitoring work across portions of the Selway Bitterroot Frank Church River-of-no-Return Wilderness. Close collaboration with regional and national forest service wilderness staff ensures that our energies are directed towards helping wilderness managers address critical regional stewardship priorities.

Data is collected by field leaders and community volunteers on multi-day backcountry trips throughout the summer, covering system and non-system (e.g. user-created) trails across the study site. Monitoring includes information about recreational use (non-motorized and motorized, number in party, location), opportunities for solitude, installations and developments (e.g. cairns, bridges, cabins), visual and auditory intrusions, recreation sites and impacts, wildlife encounters and signs (sounds, tracks, scat), species of special concern in the area, and both invasive (weeds) and sensitive plants. For invasive plants, we record patch location, size, density, and species for each infestation, as well as information about habitat type, phenology stage, and associated disturbance. Whenever possible, volunteers mitigate the spread of these invasives through hand-pulling and reseeding with native, onsite seed sources.

Following the field season, data is incorporated into a final report for the Forest Service and other interested groups or individuals. This report details and maps measurable field results and provides on-the-ground data on the monitored area to assist managers, partner organizations and members of the public in determining how to better maintain both the ecological integrity and the quality of recreational opportunities in Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas. Specifically, monitoring data assists managers and members of the public in determining problem areas and priorities for allocation of limited resources for wilderness stewardship.

The National Forest Foundation, US Forest Service, and the Cinnabar Foundation have been the primary funders of this program since its inception in 2005. Each summer, project planning and implementation is done in close partnership with the appropriate National Forest office (Bitterroot, Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Lolo National Forests in 2013; Nez Perce and Bitterroot National Forests in 2014).

No. The Wilderness Institute’s Citizen Science Program is dedicated to objective data collection and promoting broad citizen awareness of and engagement in public land management.