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Edited by: John Stewart

The Wildlands Project Comes to Hidalgo County - Part 10

The Wildlands Project: The Heritage Data Base – The Rush for Technology

by: Judy Keeler

During the 80’s there was a rush within the environmental movement to see which computerized database would become the model. The Nature Conservancy won with its Natural Heritage Program. The money to develop the database came from various sources, including state and federal grants, as well as, foundational and private funding.

The database listed endangered and special status species and the type of habitat where they were usually found. Once established as the best program, TNC sent a team consisting of a botanist, zoologist, ecologist and data-processing specialist into each state to record historical sightings. Using existing books, theses, and museum collections, the teams meticulously recorded animal and plant sightings, some dating back to over a hundred years before. They would then examine real estate records to locate where the species had been sighted, and enter this information into the database. TNC would then prioritize land acquisitions based upon the information.

According to Ron Arnold's, "Trashing the Economy", this database was ‘so fine-grained that in some states it records the precise location of individual eagle nests and clumps of globally endangered plants’.

Once the database was established and fine-tuned, it was transferred to the individual states, along with employees who were trained by TNC to run the program. TNC documents state: "The Conservancy hires and trains at its national office a program coordinator and other professionals who then become the staff of the program in the capital of the state or nation where the program will be housed. The Conservancy supervises the staff under contract. The goal is for this staff to transfer to government employment (or otherwise permanently establish themselves) after the initial phase, which is generally two years. This transfer ensures that expertise is not lost and is a pivotal part of the way in which the network functions."

The information contained in the database if often used in land-use "planning and regulatory functions." Available to state and federal land management agencies, these databases have become a source of information for determining endangered and special status species, their habitat requirements, and their distribution during the development of an Environmental Assessments (EA), or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), as required of the federal agencies during the NEPA process.

Also available to the environmental community, this information is often used when deciding if adequate federal protection has been provided for an endangered or special species.

Married to the National Biological Survey (NBS) in the early 1990’s, during Bruce Babbitt’s term as Secretary of the Interior, the National Heritage Program has grown by leaps and bounds during the last decade. Although the NBS was never authorized by Congress, it became a cabinet bureau by 1994.

Witnesses, testifying on behalf of establishing the NBS, included John Sawhill from TNC and Mark Shaffer of the Wilderness Society. During the process, witnesses were asked to report back to Congress on how the NBS and Natural Heritage Network Program could mesh together. The House passed an Interior appropriations bill in July of 1993 that included 30 million dollars worth of "new" money for the NBS.

Although initially touted by Secretary Babbitt as a system that would provide more and better data, and an "understanding of a properly functioning ecosystem" that would enable federal "land managers to recognize ecosystems in trouble before the eleventh-hour crisis", the NBS has done little to halt the lawsuits and "ecological train wrecks" this information was supposed to prevent.

Also growing exponentially has been the use of Geographic Information System (GIS) surveys for endangered and special status species. TNC, using the 5 S’s of conservation, has become the lead in contributing information to the Heritage data base program and determining threats to the various species. Their five S’s include: Systems, Stresses, Sources, Strategies and Success Measures.

"Systems - GIS allows planning teams to view the locations of conservation targets occurring at a site, as well as features representing the natural process that maintain them (i.e. hydrology, geology, topography, vegetation, microclimates, etc.

Stresses – Using GIS stresses can be analyzed to the extent of habitat destruction, degradation, or impairment afflicting the systems at a site, including fragmentation, pollution, hydrologic alteration, and invasive species. Most importantly, however, the viability of each occurrence can be determined with GIS by measuring the site according to its size, condition and landscape.

Sources – GIS also helps the planning team to pinpoint the agents generating the stresses, such as incompatible land and water use. Historic and current land use, mining, timber harvesting, roads, and pollution sources can be mapped, as well as the ownership, zoning and administrative boundaries that affect the location of the stressors. Stresses, sources, and systems can be linked based on their relationships and proximity and flow direction.

Strategies – Once the systems, stresses, and sources operating at a site are mapped, GIS becomes the primary tool to map out conservation activities that will be implemented to abate stresses and to maintain, enhance, or restore the systems. The site is zoned to delineate specific areas to receive various types of protection and management, regulatory controls, or compatible economic development. Estimates of the costs and benefits of these activities can be made based on a real measurement and predictive model.

Success Measures – Conservation actions are expensive and are often planned and implemented in a context of change and uncertainty. Thus, it is important to periodically measure our progress in maintaining and improving biodiversity health and abating threats at a site. Based on this information, the staff can modify conservation strategies to achieve greater success. GIS is used to measure and compare indicators of biodiversity health and threat abatement, such as vegetation change, pollution, and land protection."

Using the 5 S’s, The Nature Conservancy established a plan to manage much of the United States through designated Bioregions as presented on their website:

The Forest Service has been using the GIS mapping to determine the condition of allotments in the Coronado National Forest for several years.

The accuracy of interpreting GIS mapping information is not always perfect. I had the opportunity to go out on a "ground truthing" expedition in 1999. The allotment we were checking was on a neighboring ranch. According to the Forest Service's findings, using GIS mapping, the allotment's condition was 15% satisfactory, 80% unsatisfactory and had 5% unsuitable soil. However, by the time we finished the field check, we found the reverse to be true - 82% of the allotment was actually found to be in satisfactory condition, 7% unsatisfactory and 11% had unsuitable soil conditions.

The Forest Service employee shared that he was finding, in most of his ground truthing, this same trend. He assumed the color coded maps had been interpreted by the map readers incorrectly. The particular color code for grasslands did not necessarily indicate "unsatisfactory" conditions, while the trees and brushy areas, color coded green and assumed by the readers to indicate "satisfactory" condition, did not necessarily indicate "satisfactory" conditions either.

Indicating the Forest Service did not have the time or personnel to ground truth all the allotments, he believed this new interpretive mapping would be used more often to determine "suitability" of the lands.

Next Week: National Wildlife Refuges

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