Answering the "where": The use of GIS in conservation planning

GPS device (Photo by Wikimedia Commons, Harry Wood)

GPS device (Photo by Wikimedia Commons, Harry Wood)

March 28, 2014 | by | 0 Comments

Have you ever been walking through the forest and wondered, "Where am I?" When I started working at the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) as a conservation intern we would ask ourselves that question daily. Not because we were lost, but because we wanted to know where were we in relation to other features on the property. With a GPS in one hand and an orthophotograph in the other we knew exactly where we were on the landscape.

When you think about what NCC does, it seems as though we have a lot of "wheres": Where is that bird nesting? Where is that habitat type? Where is that rock pile? 

This is where a GIS (Geographical Information System) comes in handy. A GIS is essentially a combination of the GPS data, the orthophotograph and data about the GPS point (i.e. what the point represents). With technological advancements in GIS, navigating has become a lot easier and getting lost a lot harder. Many GPS units now have topographic maps on them, and some even allow the user to load orthophotographs. This has taken a lot of the guesswork out of the "Where am I?" question. 

A lot of what we do at NCC once we have secured a property for conservation is documenting where things are. This is one of the benefits of a GIS — being able to load different sources of information for navigation purposes. But a GIS goes even further than "where am I?"

Along with the "where" comes the "why." Even before we start documenting the where, we need to know why we are securing a particular piece of land. It is through detailed GIS analysis that we can determine which pieces of land represent a higher conservation value. By combining data about different aspects of the land (the features that we identify as conservation targets and features that are identified as threats to conservation) we can run an analysis that tells us where to concentrate our efforts. This analysis is informed by the most up-to-date information that we can find as well as some first-hand information we have about the area.

GIS also allows us to track our management activities on the land. We can document where things happened, when they happened and if there was a change from one year to the next. After we have done this for several seasons or even years, we can then analyze the data that we have collected to see if we are being effective at managing the land. This gives us an opportunity to change our techniques as new methods and tools are identified.

A GIS doesn’t need to be some big super computer. It can be as small as your smart phone or wristwatch. And it isn’t exclusive to conservation either. Tracking your package on a couriers website, finding the route for your next road trip using Google Maps, or even recording the route you took on your last walk — they’re all types of GIS. 

These days, GIS is everywhere and everywhere is in a GIS. Including when you're standing in the middle of a forest.