|dc.description.abstract||New Zealand is facing a biodiversity crisis as forest and wetland habitat loss continue, and the quality of freshwater declines. But in recent years, a grassroots, nationwide network of community environmental groups has been expanding its contribution to restoring, protecting and enhancing these terrestrial and aquatic habitats. At the same time, government agencies are becoming increasingly reliant on voluntary community input to enhance conservation outcomes and to manage freshwater values. Globally, volunteer participation in environmental monitoring (citizen science) is recognised as an important mechanism for producing robust data that contributes to research, management and policy development, and for enhancing scientific and environmental literacy. New Zealand, however, lags far behind international efforts in acknowledging the value of, and uses for, the type of data that community groups undertaking environmental restoration may generate. Furthermore, strategies and policies around supporting community data generation as well as use have not yet been developed at a government level.
This study sought to address this shortcoming by investigating characteristics of New Zealand community environmental groups and their projects, partnerships between groups and their project supporters, and the current and potential roles of environmental monitoring by these groups (i.e., citizen science). Data to inform this investigation was gathered using an online questionnaire sent to 540 community environmental groups across New Zealand, and 34 semi-structured interviews with project partners (e.g., resource managers and scientists), including nine interviews with members of four well–established (>10 y) community environmental groups. Qualitative data from the questionnaire and interviews were analysed using inductive and deductive thematic analysis, and quantitative data from the questionnaire were analysed for frequency counts, chi-square significance and Random Forest modelling.
Most groups surveyed were in existence for ≥ 6 y, small (up to 20 participants), and comprised older participants, aged 51-65 y. Groups reported focussing their restoration efforts on a variety of ecosystem types including forests (64%), streams (42%) and freshwater wetlands (33%), which were mostly situated on agency-owned or administered land (68%, n=290). Over two-thirds of groups combined environmental actions (particularly weed and pest control, and native tree planting), with advocacy and educational activities. The vast majority (93%, n=295) of groups relied on their project partners for support (e.g., site visits, funding and technical support), and reported a need for ongoing support in the future. Groups managing larger areas (≥ 8.1 ha), with medium to high partner support, and working on Department of Conservation or private land were more likely to be conducting their own monitoring. Their data were primarily used to support funding applications (63%; n=151), inform project restoration management, and share results with resource management agencies (both 60%; n=151), and for educational purposes (48%; n=157). Conducting water quality monitoring emerged as a strong area of interest for future work, though groups reported a lack of funding and people (both 45%; n=98), as well as technical skills (31%) as the largest challenges they faced for establishing new monitoring programmes generally. Project partners expressed concern over data quality and highlighted a lack of institutional systems for using community-generated data.
This study provides insights into the methods used by groups to address environmental degradation in New Zealand and the contextual factors that shape their project activities. Enduring partnerships are critical, and more strategic approaches that are designed to support groups and their projects in the long-term are required. Both restoration and citizen science activities by groups are generally carried out independently of other groups, highlighting the need for improved networks between groups and with key agency project partners in order to: (1) achieve stronger conservation outcomes; (2) quantify restoration gains, and (3) improve the efficiency and efficacy of the limited resourcing available. At the same time, expectations of enhancing groups’ conservation and citizen science outputs must be balanced with the voluntary nature of community groups.||