What’s in a map? Mostly place names and highways, political borders and shorelines—the fare of countless atlases, road maps, and travel guides.
The right kind of map, though, can do much more than get a body from A to B. Vegetation plots, satellite images, land use diagrams, and animal movement records are increasingly being used to keep people and nature in harmony. When layered atop traditional maps, and analyzed using geographic information system (GIS) software, this data has the power to preserve forests, support human livelihoods, and sustain entire species.
This June, conservation professionals from around the world have come to the NRS’s Blue Oak Ranch Reserve east of San Jose to sharpen their GIS skills. Armed with their own data and mapping projects, the sixteen scholars hail from fifteen different countries ranging from Cameroon to Uruguay, Belarus to Congo, Cambodia to Venezuela.
All are part of the Society for Conservation GIS’s annual International Scholarship Program, which has trained about about 450 scholars from six continents over the past 20 years. In addition to two and a half weeks of GIS training at Blue Oak Ranch, this year’s scholars will take field trips to San Francisco and Google headquarters, plus attend GIS conferences in Monterey and San Diego. The program supplies the instructors and covers attendee travel and conference fees.
Blue Oak Ranch is waiving accommodation fees for the scholars and their three instructors. Reserve director Mike Hamilton hosted the program from 1998-2007 at the NRS’s James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve in southern California. 2016 marks the first time that Blue Oak Ranch Reserve has had the facilities to host the class.
The difference a few classes can make
The program alternates classroom lessons with periods of time to work on projects, enabling the scholars to apply what they’ve learned immediately.
“I know a lot of people working in GIS but all of us just try to search for tutorials on the internet to do things,” says wildcat biologist Cintia Gisele Tellaeche of the Universidad Nacional de Jujuy, Argentina. She’s developing maps to enable Quechua villagers to develop an ecotourist industry while not disturbing rare Andean and pampas cats. “We've been learning a lot here and I am going to be able to share all that with my colleagues.”
“In my previous practice I did a lot of work by hand, sitting in front of the computer for many hours typing. Now I found there are many automatic tools so you can do this in a few seconds if you know how to organize your data correctly,” says Iurii Strus of the State Museum of Natural History, Ukraine.
Andina Anastasia Krey of USAID in Indonesia appreciates the vast GIS experience of the instructors. “Usually I do something this way, and get stuck, so I have to take the long way to do what I want,” says the USAID Lestari planner from Indonesia. “In this class, they give us shortcuts, and it makes life much easier. And whenever we get stuck, they’ll come and check everything and make sure we can keep going.”
A good use for jet lag
Reserve director Hamilton leads the group on daily hikes through the reserve to ensure everyone gets at least a taste of wild California. But despite the beauty of the landscape and the balmy weather outside, the majority spend as much time as possible working on their projects.
“I am staying in the computer lab all the days, all the night. I don’t sleep much. My body doesn’t know if it is day or it is night because I’m staying awake when it is evening here and day in Madagascar,” says Maholy Ravaloharimanitra of The Aspinall Foundation.
“Last night I ended up staying until past midnight,” says Ricardo Sandí Sagot of the Organization for Tropical Studies. “You have to use your time quite well here even though it’s exciting to go shopping and watch Warriors games.”
“It’s like GIS camp,” says John Schaeffer of Juniper GIS, longtime lead instructor for the program. “We work during the day, go down and have some dinner, and come back up to work some more.”
Landing a spot in this program is no picnic. Applicants submit proposals describing the project they aim to complete during the training. Selections are based on factors such as an applicant’s ability to obtain and afford training at home, opportunities to share knowledge with colleagues, region of origin, and the conservation value of the project. The result is a program benefitting people and ecosystems around the globe.
Maholy Ravaloharimanitra has come literally halfway across the world to aid lemurs. These ancient primates, found only on the mega-island of Madagascar, are losing habitat to a burgeoning human population.
“There is a plan which is supposed to make the forest sustainable for both the lemurs and the humans. “This plan is not well established because we don’t have enough analysis of the type of habitat” the lemurs use, Ravaloharimanitra of The Aspinall Foundation says. “The forest will disappear if there is no better plan to make it sustainable.”
Primatologists at The Aspinall Foundation have been tracking lemur travels, populations, behavior, and threats for the past six years. But Ravaloharimanitra has had difficulty incorporating the data into forest management plans because she is essentially self-taught at GIS.
That roadblock has crumbled thanks to the workshop. “I have discovered here that based on lemur behavior we can plan our management system for the local communities,” she says. “I rediscovered where I have gotten stuck in Madagascar and am taking notes on the resolution they are teaching me. It’s very, very worthwhile to me.”
Despite the sunny weather, Ravaloharimanitra is bundled in a turtleneck and fleece jacket. She’s noticed that she and several other scholars from tropical locales have all chosen to stay in the reserve’s enclosed dormitory cabins. “It is those who are from the cold countries like Russia, the Andes, who chose the seasonal cabins because they are feeling hot,” she says.
In the struggle to slow climate change, mangrove forests offer a powerful set of brakes. Adapted to growing in the brackish waters of tropical coastlines, these shrubby forests are powerhouses at storing carbon and nurturing shrimp and crab fisheries. Of these, the mangroves of West Papua, Indonesia, are among the most carbon-rich on the planet.
At the same time, local communities in the region must rely on natural resources to make a living. Some fish, some mine, some log the tropical forests.
Indonesia has land management plans designed to balance conservation with economic development. Andina Anastasia Krey of USAID Lestari helps the Indonesian government identify the best uses of these lands.
“We try to make it balanced. There are areas you can open for economic activities, but there are also areas with very high conservation value that are better to leave and conserve,” Krey of USAID Lestari says. “You can use the land as long as you use it in the right place, not on the steepest slope or in the area that’s supposed to supply you with water.”
Krey is using GIS to combine information about how local communities traditionally use the land, what industries are in the area, vegetation type, biodiversity data, and other remote sensing information. These maps will help her provide recommendations about which lands to open for different purposes, and how land use changes might affect carbon release and other environmental factors.
An avian umbrella
Iurii Strus is using GIS to save his country’s old-growth forests. An ornithologist with the State Museum of Natural History in Ukraine, he studies the migration patterns, genetics, habitat preferences, and breeding behavior of rare birds like the black stork.
Strus says that because the stork nests only in very old, dense forest far from human settlements, it can serve as an umbrella species. “When you protect the stork and its nesting territory for a radius of 500 meters, you also protect other, smaller species like birds, mammals, invertebrates, and also plants. “ Unfortunately, such old-growth trees are also most valuable to loggers.
Strus and colleagues saw an opportunity to change this dynamic when Ukraine began participating in an international forest certification program. The program requires forestry companies to protect a percentage of their land from logging. Companies initially set aside tracts of younger, lower value trees.
Then Strus came along armed with maps depicting stork nesting territories. “Based on data we have already collected, we were able to convince three companies to shift their protected forest areas to places where black storks breed,” he says.
Now he and his colleagues are sharpening their arguments for a loftier arena—Ukraine’s parliament. “We are trying to lobby for a law which will force every forestry company to create special protection zones around nesting territories of species like rare forest raptors and the black grouse. We need to have some very robust and convincing materials like statistical analysis, good maps, and so on. My task is to create such maps with the help of GIS to provide local authorities.”
Between GIS lessons, Strus is spending his time at the reserve birding. “I have seen so far maybe 40 new species of birds. Almost all the birds that I have seen this one week are new for me because we see only a few of these in Europe.”
Field station comparisons
Ricardo Sandí Sagot heads the GIS lab at one of the world’s most famous tropical research stations, La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica.
He’s using GIS to monitor land use changes over time by melding satellite and remote sensing data. He’s had difficulty to date getting the training he needs to incorporate that type of data into maps.
“In order to get conservation GIS training and land planning, you have to go out of Costa Rica,” Sagot says. “This gathering with very experienced GIS people is enriching my knowledge. They have quite a few modules that are quite advanced.”
The chance to meet scholars from every corner of the globe makes the program even better, he says. “It’s interesting to see the types of work they do in different conservation GIS projects. I’m sharing many ideas I have and receiving many ideas they have. So this gathering is very, very helpful or my career and my organization.”
Sagot has been comparing the workings of La Selva with those of Blue Oak Ranch on matters ranging from trail marking to the reserve’s microclimate monitoring system. He’s particularly impressed by the talents and efficiency of the reserve’s two staff members, director Mike Hamilton and steward Erik Viik, who take care of everything from visitor reservations to hiking tours, facilities maintenance to setting camera traps, brush clearing to room cleaning. “I work in a place that is bigger than this but we have like 95 staff for all of this. It’s amazing how these two guys handle all of this work they have to do.”
The world of GIS has arrived, Blue Oak Ranch Reserve
International Scholarship Program, Society for Conservation GIS