Picture a hike in the beautiful Cascade Mountains — such a great chance to escape the bustle of modern life and break away from all those electronic leashes. Unless, of course, you’re in those woods because you work there.
Foresters with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) are gearing up for a field season made easier with the use of iPads fully loaded with maps and data key to managing the thousands of acres of forest that the nonprofit owns in Washington state.
The old way of doing the work required hauling expensive handheld GPS units and writing copious notes into notebooks, transcribing 10-digit GPS location numbers over and over.
“There was a lot of room for errors,” said Jamie Robertson, conservation geographer for TNC in Seattle.
Now the nonprofit’s foresters have iPads with a tool called the Esri Collector app that displays satellite maps and can call up map layers displaying roads, trails, culverts that allow fish passage, streams, slopes, stands of old growth trees, information on endangered species and even forest fires. This is only the second field season that the local foresters will be using the apps.
While GPS technology is commonplace for most drivers and smartphone users these days, the most modern mobile mapping tools for use on the ground in conservation forestry are still in the development phase in the U.S. The tools being developed by TNC and Esri in Washington could be adapted for use elsewhere.
“Forestry is a new and exciting way of using the technology,” Robertson said.
TNC has partnered with Esri, which creates mapping software including ArcGIS, to develop the forestry tools.
Ryan Haugo is a senior forest ecologist with TNC and uses the iPad in his work managing nearly 50,000 acres of woods in Cle Elum near Interstate 90 that the organization recently purchased from the Plum Creek Timber Co. The acreage is spread across the land in a checkerboard pattern covering a total of 300,000 acres.
“There’s a tangle of different ownership boundaries,” Haugo said.
The group is trying to restore the woods to a healthier condition, which requires some selective logging to weed out skinny, over-crowded trees and other management practices.
“We’re trying to take what are dense plantations and convert and restore them to more natural habitat with fewer and larger trees,” Haugo said. “We’re not just locking the gates and shutting them down, we’re actively managing those lands.”
Jennifer Hackett, founder of Washington Hometown, a mapping and data management startup, has provided TNC with maps on trails and recreation areas in the Cascades. Hackett pulled together data from Roslyn Trails Alliance and Suncadia Resort to give the nonprofit a clearer picture of how the land was being used by people in the area.
The organization’s use of the mapping tools “is incredibly important. If you don’t understand how things relate, you can’t make good decisions,” Hackett said. “You can buy the land, but if you don’t understand that people are using it for something else… you can’t make a good decision (for conservation and management).”
TNC is also using the iPads for management in Willapa Bay, on the state’s Pacific Coast, and they’re expanding their use of mobile mapping tools to projects on the Olympic Peninsula. TNC owns about 108,000 acres in the state.
When staff are in the field, they can use GPS to take continuous readings and create digital trails mapping where they’ve hiked. If they spot a point of interest — a culvert that needs repairs to remove a blockage or a location with important habitat for wildlife — they can put a virtual pin in the spot on their map for reference. The tool can also be used to make a quick calculation of how many miles of roads, for example, need to be surveyed for maintenance.
Using the iPad app to note features in the woods, “it standardizes everything and keeps it really simple,” Robertson said.
“It’s been really useful to us and it’s fun to be out in the woods and take your tablet out and pull up this aerial photograph and inventory,” Haugo said. “You get that bird’s-eye view of wherever you’re standing.”