The challenge of forest diagnostics.
Ecologists and practitioners have conventionally used forest plots or transects for monitoring changes in attributes of forest condition over time. However, given the difficulty in collecting such data, conservation practitioners frequently rely on the judgment of foresters and forest users for evaluating changes. These methods are rarely compared. We use a dataset of 53 forests in five countries to compare assessments of forest change from forest plots, and forester and user evaluations of changes in forest density. We find that user assessments of changes in tree density are strongly and significantly related to assessments of change derived from statistical analyses of randomly distributed forest plots. User assessments of change in density at the shrub/sapling level also relate to assessments derived from statistical evaluations of vegetation plots, but this relationship is not as strong and only weakly significant. Evaluations of change by professional foresters are much more difficult to acquire, and less reliable, as foresters are often not familiar with changes in specific local areas. Forester evaluations can instead better provide valid single-time comparisons of a forest with other areas in a similar ecological zone. Thus, in forests where local forest users are present, their evaluations can be used to provide reliable assessments of changes in tree density in the areas they access. However, assessments of spatially heterogeneous patterns of human disturbance and regeneration at the shrub/sapling level are likely to require supplemental vegetation analysis.