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Managing natural resourcesAt a time when human population growth is taxing the earth’s abundance as never before, natural resource managers are discovering the power of geographic information systems (GIS) to help them make the crucial decisions they face every day. Once an expensive technology favored by research scientists, GIS emerged in the 1990s as the tool of choice in local, state, and national resource agencies around the globe. GIS is helping the development and conservation communities find common ground by providing a framework for the analysis and discussion of resource management issues.
The role of GIS Biologists, botanists, planners, petroleum engineers, foresters, and corporate executives are increasingly relying on GIS to help them make critical decisions. By putting their spatial data in an integrated system where it can be organized, analyzed, and mapped, they find patterns and relationships that were previously unrecognized. This in turn gives them a deeper understanding of the issues they face, and lets them bring more information and less conjecture to the problem- solving process. Whether they’re restoring habitat, planting a vineyard, searching for oil, fighting wildfires, or measuring endangered species populations, these "spatially literate" users have learned to unleash the power of GIS for managing natural resources.
The goal of sustainability There’s no simple answer to the environmental problems confronting the world. People need to live, to eat, to improve the quality of their lives, and this means that resources will be consumed. Too often, however, simple ignorance (lack of information) leads to practices that use resources in ways that can’t be sustained over time. And in a very real sense, our ability to sustain resources may determine our fate on the planet. But there is increasing optimism in many circles that the application of information technologies to natural resource management will help us feed and house 6 billion people next year, and perhaps 10 billion by 2020, without ravaging the environment. Two trends in particular-the proliferation of measuring devices and advances in geographic information systems-offer the best hope yet for comprehending and correcting the damage being done to our planet. We live in an age when just about everything that moves or changes over time is being measured. Remote sensing technologies are creating data faster and in greater volumes than ever before, and all of this information is geographically referenced. Fortunately, we also live in an age when the computing power and information management tools are in place to allow people to use this data productively. These geospatial tools make it possible to focus our attention on the large problems, to pinpoint the small ones, and to anticipate those that are waiting in the wings. Natural resource managers are increasingly turning to GIS as the crucible in which this data can be processed and from which solutions can be drawn.
Real-world examples The 12 case studies in this book, Chevron, The EPA, City of New York, and The Oregon Dept. of Forestry, just to name a few, cover a variety of environmental applications for GIS. In some of them, the systems are run by nonprofit organizations monitoring a particular ecological threat, like deforestation. In others, GIS is used by public agencies to help restore the natural habitat of endangered species or to reclaim areas of polluted industrial land. In still others, heavy industries themselves use GIS to help them extract essential resources, like oil and minerals, with minimal impact to the environment. It wasn’t possible, of course, to address every issue of environmental resource management, but an effort has been made to be representative. The chances are that even if your particular field isn’t covered, you’ll see familiar concerns and find useful problem-solving strategies. If you already know the basics of GIS, you may want to skip directly to the case studies. If not, it may be worth a few moments of your time to read the introductory material that follows.
What is GIS? What is a geographic information system? No one has yet found a definition that satisfies everyone. Essentially, though, a GIS is any of various software applications, running on PCs or workstations, that stores, analyzes, and displays multiple layers of geographic information. In simplest terms, a GIS can be thought of as a spatial database. What does that mean exactly? First, it means that discrete geographic locations on the earth’s surface can be stored in computer files as sets of mathematical coordinates. This makes it possible to draw a map on a computer: a map of the world, a map of the Amazon basin, a map of your neighborhood. Second, it means that different map files, or layers, of spatial information with common geography can be displayed simultaneously and analyzed with reference to one another. In a map of an agricultural area, one layer might represent the boundaries of the land, another the soil types found there, another the local streams, and still another the changes in elevation. The analytical power of a GIS lets you query the system to extract information from multiple layers. For instance, to find the most suitable place to plant a crop, you might identify locations with a particular soil type, lying at a certain elevation, and receiving a specified amount of rainfall. Third, it means that any quantitative information that can be linked to geography can be used in a GIS. Not only can you represent, for example, the locations of toxic waste sites in a given region as points on a map, but you can symbolize these points (draw them in different colors, sizes, and shapes) according to any information you have about them, such as the type of waste they store. Fourth, it means that geographic features and phenomena can be modeled from sample data. A typical example is that of a digital terrain model. Sample elevation data is gathered at various points and the GIS uses this input to create a continuous elevation surface, or, in other words, to build a model of the landscape. Similarly, models of processes, such as the spread of oil slicks or wildfires, can be simulated from sample data and from assumptions about the movements of forces like winds and tides.
Why geography matters The study of environmental resource management makes it clear that what is taken with one hand is very often given by the other, whether we know it at the time or not. The city of Los Angeles flourishes on water diverted from the Owens Valley. The result is that Owens Lake dries up, leaving a bed of salts and toxins that become a major source of airborne pollution. Economic prosperity builds skyscrapers in Chicago, but builds them in the flight paths of migrating birds, who crash by the hundreds of thousands into reflected skies. Rain forests are cut down for timber and to clear arable land, and the global implications-for plants and animals, rivers and oceans, and the earth’s atmosphere-boggle the informed mind. GIS is an ideal system for analyzing the impact of development and consumption on natural resources, because geography is the playing field, literally, on which these dynamics unfold. Information maintained by different organizations, often for very different purposes, can be integrated and analyzed to visualize relationships, find explanations, and develop solutions to pressing problems. Consider a wildlife manager concerned about the decline of a fish species in a stream network. She studies the fish’s local habitat and finds nothing apparently wrong. With GIS, she can bring more information to bear on the problem. A map of the larger region shows her an important stream that links her fish population to another with which it breeds. Taking samples of the stream water, she finds that the fish may be avoiding it because the temperature is too high. Has something changed? Again, GIS can help. Land use data from a city planning department reveals that forested land along the stream was cleared for housing developments. The trees that once cooled the water with their shade are no longer there, and a plausible explanation for the problem has been found. What about a solution? Perhaps measures can be taken to cool the stream. Adding large amounts of woody debris to the stream itself provides shade that lowers the water temperature. Or perhaps other connecting streams can be rendered more suitable to the fish. In any case, GIS has been crucial in establishing an unexpected relationship between the building of houses and the welfare of a wildlife population. This knowledge can be used to improve resource management in the future.
Education and spatial literacy At least as important as good resource management is environmental education. And in dealing with issues so fundamentally rooted in space, the language of geography is what’s spoken. GIS increases spatial literacy-the understanding of how issues of place affect the decisions we make-by putting the tools of geography in the hands of many, and making them easy to use and understand. As people come to appreciate the interconnectedness of environmental problems, the chances for cooperation among nations, international organizations, and interest groups of all kinds improves. And as spatial literacy improves, this goodwill can be translated into increasingly effective action. Ultimately, we need to make sure that we raise a new generation of environmentally responsible citizens. One of the best ways to do this is to bring GIS into the classroom. As this book’s case study in education shows, high school students with the right training and materials are as capable as adults of carrying out projects that make a difference.