Lichen element content is a reliable indicator for relative air pollution load in research and monitoring programmes requiring both efficiency and representation of many sites. We tested the value of costly rigorous field and handling protocols for sample element analysis using five lichen species. No relaxation of rigour was supported; four relaxed protocols generated data significantly different from rigorous protocols for many of the 20 validated elements. Minimally restrictive site selection criteria gave quality data from 86% of 81 permanent plots in northern Midwest USA; more restrictive criteria would likely reduce indicator reliability. Use of trained non-specialist field collectors was supported when target species choice considers the lichen community context. Evernia mesomorpha, Flavoparmelia caperata and Physcia aipolia/stellaris were successful target species. Non-specialists were less successful at distinguishing Parmelia sulcata and Punctelia rudecta from lookalikes, leading to few samples and some poor quality data.