The focus of the 2.4 million-acre Four Forest Restoration Initiative isn’t only on improving the health of the region’s trees. It’s also aimed at reviving soils, habitats and watersheds across northern Arizona’s four forests, with part of the plan promising to restore 75 springs in its first phase.

The problem is that there are few funds or other resources to monitor whether that restoration is actually taking place, said Kelly Burke, with the nonprofit Wildlands Network.

That’s where a new smartphone app-driven citizen science initiative comes in.

The Wildlands Network, Northern Arizona University and the Museum of Northern Arizona have received a $110,000 grant to develop a springs monitoring program that will allow citizens to help track the health and improvement of these water sources as forests are treated using thinning and prescribed fire.

“We all get to test this hypothesis together that forest restoration is going to benefit springs,” Burke said.

The hope is that involving interested citizens will produce a more regular flow of data about springs throughout the region, giving a better sense for how they are faring over time, said Abe Springer, a hydrogeologist at Northern Arizona University who is working on the project.

The data could then help shape recommendations of how 4FRI should proceed in the future, Burke said.

The app at work

Right now, researchers are looking at the 75 springs the Forest Service said are likely to receive benefit from initial forest restoration treatments, as well as an equal number of springs outside the 4FRI treatment area that will act as a control group. Springer and a team of graduate students visited all 75 springs in the summer of 2014 to determine their current condition and risk.

The springs monitoring app will likely be adapted from other smartphone-based data collection apps, Springer said. 

Citizen scientists will be asked to photograph the spring they visit, make various observations about plants and animals around the area and perform a “wet hand test” where they put their hand at the source of the spring and indicate whether they felt any water or moisture.

That information is especially important for determining whether a spring is ephemeral or perennial and yet it is information that scientists don’t have for the vast majority of the region’s springs, said Larry Stevens, director of the Museum of Northern Arizona’s Springs Stewardship Initiative.

“We don’t know the basics of what kinds of springs are in most landscapes in U.S.” Stevens said.

The crowd-sourced information will feed directly into a database that is already populated with information about approximately 100,000 that has been gathered by nonprofit and academic organizations, Stevens said.

Volunteers will be trained on how to collect data with the idea that they can pass along that knowledge to other people within their organization, Springer said. The goal is to train an initial group of 30 to 50 volunteers in 2016.

Once the app has been tested by that initial group, it can be used anywhere in the world, helping contribute to a global database of springs, Stevens said. There are an estimated 1 million springs in the United States and 10 million to 50 million springs worldwide, the vast majority of which are undocumented, he said.

The Wildlands Network is interested in the project because healthy springs are crucial to functional wildlife corridors, which are central to the nonprofit’s work, Burke said. Besides providing water for wildlife moving through an area, springs ecosystems are hotspots of biodiversity, providing habitat for many native and rare species, she said.

Both Springer and Burke agreed that efforts to enlist citizens as data collectors have proven a useful tactic for major monitoring projects, greatly increasing capacity to gather information.

“I think they are hugely successful in arenas where there are already national databases being formed,” Burke said. “This is pioneering one in the world of springs.”

There’s also the benefit of providing people with a different way to explore and learn about the local landscape, Burke said.

“It’s getting people directly engaged in stewardship of lands around them, and springs in particular,” she said.

Plus, Stevens said, “finding springs is a wonderful adventure.”

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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