Mapping the Future

With GIS Environmental Software, the Proof is in the Plotting

This GIS map treates the Pacific Northwest as an ecosystem of varying rainforest environments.

At the front lines of environmentalism, often the first and biggest challenge is proving that there is a problem. The systematic environmental poisoning Rachel Carson described in Silent Spring made headlines nearly 50 years ago because it was exceptionally well-documented. The allegations of toxic contamination at New York’s Love Canal required proof before people were evacuated. Sometimes aerial photographic evidence must be produced before charges of clearcutting by logging companies can be firmly established.

One tool environmentalists are turning to in an effort to document environmental crimes and misdemeanors is Geographical Information Systems (GIS), a unique computer program used to collect and document evidence of environmental change and degradation. GIS is also helping scientists to understand the many complex factors acting together to create environmental problems.

Like a word processor or a spreadsheet, GIS software is simply a tool that takes advantage of computer processing power to create large, colorful and informative environmental maps. In five years, predicts media wizard and futurist Stewart Brand, people are likely to be amazed by what is being done with it.

Interrain Pacific, a non-profit conservation organization based in Portland, Oregon, has assembled enough maps with GIS software to publish The Rain Forests of Home: An Atlas of People and Place. It looks nothing like the guide published by Rand-McNally to help you find your way around the nation’s highways. Instead, Interrain’s colorful maps offer detailed information about the long, narrow strip of forest stretching across the 2,000 miles of Pacific Coast from Northern California to Alaska.

One map characterizes the different kinds of temperate rain forests. Another shows the precarious state of many native languages along the Pacific coast, identifying the areas where some are extinct or only a handful of speakers remain. A third map divides the coast according to watersheds, highlighting those that have the most intact forest cover and which may therefore be good candidates for wilderness protection.

GIS tools are essential to many environmentalists precisely because of their popularity with scientists in government and industry.

Visually linking data to places is just the beginning of what makes GIS valuable. Once the data is linked, it can be sorted into logical layers which the database inside the GIS program can then analyze in every conceivable way. Its analytical capabilities are also what differentiate GIS programs from less expensive mapping software that does little more than automate cartography.

By associating data of all kinds with points on a map, GIS software can pick up patterns and trends that might otherwise be incomprehensible, showing, for example, how forest clearcuts are disguised by 100-foot roadside “buffers.” Originally designed for expensive and high-powered computing workstations in the 1970s, the software has been actively used by government bureaucrats for creating the maps in environmental impact statements. Over the years, it became a key tool for public utilities and industries, including oil, mining and logging. GIS’ recent surge in popularity among grassroots groups is largely attributable to the fact that the software now runs on garden-variety personal computers.

GIS is helping to prove that habitat loss in the United States is associated with mammal extinctions, thanks to work by environmental scientists at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. The Washington, D.C.-based environmental group American Forests uses it to show how removing urban trees results in higher city temperatures. Government officials in Georgia are using GIS to corroborate their hunch that illegal logging is occurring on privately owned property.

In Los Angeles, Occidental College graduate student Jim Sadd collected demographic data about where poor and minority people live, and where hazardous waste facilities are found. Then, using GIS, he was able to get the layers of disparate information to interact and clearly demonstrate his theory about environmental racism. “In almost every case, a large percentage of people who live near these facilities are minorities and are below the county average in terms of income, education, employment and voting participation,” he says.

GIS tools are essential to many environmentalists precisely because of their popularity with scientists in government and industry. “Most important environmental decisions are made using GIS,” explains David Carruthers, a staff scientist with Ecotrust Canada, a sister organization of Interrain Pacific. “Without it, you really can’t negotiate.”

Ecotrust (which has both American and Canadian offices) and Interrain are both promoting the use of GIS technology to people throughout the Pacific Northwest’s temperate rainforest. The scenically beautiful but environmentally threatened areas where the organizations are active include the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska (where Interrain Pacific is working with the Sitka Conservation Society to analyze and publicize Forest Service logging plans) and the controversial Clayoquot Sound in British Columbia.

In the Clayoquot Sound, Interrain Pacific is collaborating with the Ahousahts of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nation. GIS systems give members of the Native American tribe a credible voice in negotiations with the provincial government of British Columbia and the timber and mining industries the government hires to “manage” the Ahousaht’s ancestral lands.

Eventually, the Ahousaht hope to use traditional knowledge of the local forests and fisheries to help restore them. Take a historically important food fish like herring, for example. “We will talk to the elders, and they can show us all the areas where the herring used to spawn,” says Tom Paul, Ahousaht GIS technician. “We can do a resource inventory on stocks and compare what’s there to what’s been taken out.”

Interrain Pacific is an active participant in the Conservation Technology Support Program (CTSP) created to give equipment away to deserving non-profits. Run in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution, the CTSP is supported by the largest vendors of GIS equipment: Redlands, California’s Environmental Science Research Institute (ESRI), the oldest and most well-known purveyor of GIS software; Apple Computer, which makes Power PCs; Trimble, which builds global positioning systems; and Hewlett-Packard, whose inventory includes engineering workstations, digitizers for capturing data, and giant plotters for printing out poster-sized color maps.

Donating equipment is important, for even the most basic GIS system requires $6,000 for software and a relatively souped-up Pentium computer. Useful extras like plotters and global positioning systems can easily escalate costs to the $20,000 range.

The prospect of depending upon computers for environmental salvation certainly has its disturbing ramifications. But the risk will prove to be worth taking if GIS continues to deliver on its promise to protect gre

en places.