Exploring links between citizen environmental monitoring and decision making: three Canadian case examples
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Environmental decision making processes are subject to diverse and at times conflicting pressures. On one hand, an enlightenment perspective places high value on scientific information about complex environmental phenomena, thus encouraging highly trained experts to perform research, interpret results, and provide advice to decision makers. On the other, international and domestic efforts to apply the concept of sustainable development tend to promote an enhanced role for non-expert knowledge and increased opportunities for public participation in decisions that affect local environments and livelihoods. Complicating this scenario further are debates within governments about how to allocate limited resources for environmental research and management. Citizen environmental monitoring initiatives provide an opportunity to examine these considerations as they play out in a variety of settings. From local, grassroots citizen groups to regional networks with government support, a wide range of monitoring programs exist that involve volunteers in gathering environmental information using scientific methods. Many groups attempt to apply their findings to planning initiatives, policy development or environmental law enforcement at local or regional levels. These efforts may blur the distinction between scientific and local knowledge, while raising questions about the relative legitimacy of experts and citizens as producers of knowledge for use in environmental decision making. Using a case study approach, this thesis explores factors affecting the application of information gathered through citizen environmental monitoring programs to decision making processes and outcomes in Comox Valley, British Columbia, and Hamilton and Muskoka, Ontario. Semi-formal interviews were conducted in all three locations with coordinators of citizen groups that perform environmental monitoring, as well as with government representatives who have some involvement with the same citizen monitoring initiatives. Key themes affecting the use of citizen monitoring information emerged from the study, including political will on the part of local decision makers, scientific rigour and data quality of citizen monitoring efforts, and perceived legitimacy of citizen groups in terms of their organizational stability and reputations. Suggestions are presented for overcoming obstacles in each of these areas. The research also identifies further issues that affect the application of citizen-collected data such as the level of matching between the information priorities of citizen groups and governments, as well as collaborative arrangements between program partners. On these issues, interviewees shared their ideal scenarios for citizen monitoring programs with respect to funding, partnership strategies, and best roles for volunteers, citizen groups, and governments who are involved in citizen environmental monitoring programs. Based on the findings of this study, it is recommended that future research investigate further the issues of power sharing, agenda setting, and mutual trust between citizen groups and governments at the local level.