NRCA Framework and Reference Conditions

NRCA Study and Indicator Frameworks

A number of natural resource assessment and reporting frameworks exist. Frameworks help guide and organize aspects of study planning and execution as well as final report-out of condition findings. Parks and study investigators are encouraged to read the following discussion and look at completed NRCA reports as a way to help them consider their options.

Indicator Frameworks

Some frameworks simply provide a logical scheme for grouping diverse resources and resource indicators. They assist study planning and condition reporting but do not provide any specific direction on how to conduct the resource assessment. If this is the type of framework used, an important consideration is to look at the upper level reporting categories. Are they a good fit for the topics you want to roll indicator-level findings up to and deliver key condition messages about?

Suitable indicator frameworks for use in NRCAs include, but are not limited to:

NPS Inventory & Monitoring Program's "NPS Ecological Monitoring Framework" (DOC - 135KB)
This is a 6-category framework used to organize and report NPS I&M Program vital signs. Top reporting categories: 1) Air and Climate, 2) Geology and Soils, 3) Water, 4) Biological Integrity, 5) Human Use, 6) Landscapes (ecosystem pattern and processes)

EPA-SAB Framework (PDF - 1.4MB)
This is a 6-category framework developed by the EPA-Science Advisory Board (EPA-SAB). Top reporting categories: 1) Landscape Condition, 2) Biotic Condition, 3) Chemical and Physical Characteristics (water, air, soil, sediment), 4) Ecological Processes, 5) Hydrology and Geomorphology, 6) Natural Disturbance Regimes

Conservation Planning and Assessment Frameworks

In some cases, a particular assessment technique, methodology, or logic model is paired with an indicator framework. Parks and study investigators can optionally choose to use one of these types of frameworks in an NRCA. Suitable conservation planning and assessment frameworks include, but are not limited to:

The NatureServe Ecological Integrity Assessment
A framework developed by NatureServe that provides a systematic approach to conservation planning and management.

The Nature Conservancy's Conservation Action Planning (CAP) Process
Similar to the NatureServe-NPS assessment process, a framework that has been developed by the Nature Conservancy for use at multiple ecological system scales.

Decision Support System (DSS) Models
As outlined at the above link, DSS models bring resource data into a structured geospatial framework to assist planning and decision making activities. They are also generically referred to as spatial decision support systems. Additional information is available through the Spatial Decision Support Knowledge Portal.

Reference Conditions and Reference Values

As stated in a dated but still informative U.S. Forest Service fact sheet:

Reference values come in a wide variety of names (benchmark, standard, trend, threshold, desired future condition, norm); but all refer to a comparison to which an indicator can be examined or gauged. The reference value gives a point of reference to help interpret what we know about an indicator; to force discussion about what the measurement of an indicator is telling us; to help us assess whether we are moving in the desired direction and at the right pace; and, to help identify what other things interact with or are affected by that indicator.

...Reference values help us evaluate how we are doing; consequently, their utility critically hinges on the rationale for what we choose as the bases of these values. Reference values can be formed on a variety of different kinds of bases from current conditions to legal standards to historic range of variation. All present potentially logical foundations for forming reference values.

Consistent with the above, NPS has adopted a pragmatic approach to defining and applying reference conditions and values in the context of NRCAs. While it is often appropriate to frame reference conditions in terms of unaltered (pristine) natural conditions, this is not a requirement. While it is usually desirable to express reference values in precise quantitative terms, this is not a requirement. Instead, parks and study investigators are encouraged to frame reference conditions/values in practical, useful terms that reflect currently available data and our interpretations and expert judgments about those data. For example, reference conditions can be framed in terms of regulatory or program standards, historical data, data from relatively undisturbed sites, predictive models, or expert opinion. Embedded in this practical approach is the premise that it is acceptable to revisit and refine reference conditions and values over time—especially as we develop new data and insights about park resources, their conditions, and the factors influencing those conditions.

National guidance on this subject can be stated in very simple terms. At a minimum, all NRCAs must use logical and clearly documented forms of reference conditions and values. Beyond this minimum requirement, individual parks can choose to "raise the bar" and take a more rigorous or formalized approach to defining and quantifying reference conditions/values in their project. For an example of a more formalized approach, see the information and links posted on the EPA website.

In cases where a park has already determined aspects of their 'desired conditions' or 'management targets' through specific park planning and management steps, they can be clearly documented as such and used as reference conditions/values in that park's NRCA project.

For citation purposes, the NRCA Program and a number of other NPS planning and science programs use this formal definition:

Reference Condition: A quantifiable or otherwise objective value or range of values for an Indicator or Specific Measure of Condition that is intended to provide context for comparison with the Current Condition values. The Reference Condition is intended to represent an acceptable resource condition, with appropriate information and scientific or scholarly consensus. The Reference Condition might be based on a regulatory or program standards, historical data, data from relatively undisturbed sites, predictive models, or expert opinion.

Last updated: September 13, 2018