Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with Patrick J. Crist

NatureServe’s Director of Conservation Planning and Ecosystem Management shares his insight, case studies, and thoughts about the future of GIS in conservation planning.

By Amy Nelson

Article Index

Who better to talk to for this issue of Leaf Litter than a man who spent most of his professional career applying GIS technology and tools toward the protection and conservation of natural resources? Patrick J. Crist is the Director of Conservation Planning and Ecosystem Management for NatureServe, an international information technology non-profit organization specializing in the conservation of biodiversity. By working with its network of natural heritage programs and conservation data centers, NatureServe collects and manages detailed local information on plants, animals, and ecosystems. The organization also develops information products, data management tools, and conservation services to help meet local, national, and global conservation needs.

Patrick wears a variety of hats at NatureServe. He manages the development and field applications of conservation planning methods and prototypes for NatureServe’s decision support software; coordinates a multi-institutional science team distributed around the U.S.; serves as Principal Investigator for the organization’s Ecosystem-Based Management Tools Program and Network and directs GIS work for numerous conservation planning projects.

Before joining NatureServe, Patrick was the National Program Coordinator for the USGS Gap Analysis Program (GAP), a nationwide biodiversity assessment program.  He began his GAP career as the New Mexico GAP coordinator. Patrick holds a B.S. in landscape architecture from California Polytechnic, an M.L.A. in landscape architecture and regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania, and Ph.D. in Natural Resources from the University of Idaho.

Tell us about NatureServe and it’s origins within The Nature Conservancy.

The main component that was spun off from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) was the aspect of supporting natural heritage programs and conservation data centers throughout the hemisphere. There were some significant parts of TNC that worked closely with these programs, in terms of science aspects such as taxonomy and assessment of global imperilment status of species and ecosystems. There were also aspects of data management, such as tool and technology development and GIS.

That whole package — coordination of the heritage network and scientific and technical support for that network — was something that was originally called the “Association for Biodiversity Information.” It existed as a component within TNC. After the spinoff (which occurred in 2000, which was the year before I came on board), development people said that wasn’t the best name for fundraising, as it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. So, the name NatureServe was coined for both the organization itself as well as the network. We received ongoing, graduated support from TNC for seven years after that.

Does NatureServe now function independently?

We have been an independent organization since the spinoff, but in terms of financial independence, yes. We continue to collaborate with TNC and receive some funding through them, but were quite successful in replacing that initial, generous funding from TNC with a lot of grants and contract work. Our funding is pretty diffuse.

People often ask, “What’s the difference between TNC and NatureServe?”  Besides size — TNC is a billion dollar a year organization and we’re about a $12 million a year organization; TNC has 4,000 employees; we have about one hundred — what the organizations do is pretty different. NatureServe is a non-advocacy organization that achieves its mission of conservation vicariously through others. What we do is provide non-advocacy services, such as data analyses, data management, and tool provision. We provide conservation planning services to any organization that is interested in incorporating conservation into what they do and willing to apply good data and science methods to the problem.

We don’t buy land ourselves. We don’t propose our own conservation priorities for the world. We don’t sue people. We don’t engage in any of those activities often associated with environmental organizations.

So, you’re not just a clearinghouse for all of this data. You actually help organizations to manage and analyze it?

The clearinghouse role is probably what we are still best known for — bringing the data in from all of these data centers and rectifying that into one multijurisdictional database. Essentially, it’s considered THE national database of biodiversity. But many organizations, in particular federal agencies, ask us to do large, regional analyses. It is too cumbersome for them to have to go to every individual state heritage program and get the data and analyses. So we do a lot of national or regional analysis for [the U.S.] Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Defense, Forest Service, Park Service, etc. often in cooperation with the state heritage programs that possess the best knowledge about their data.

We have developed additional areas of work since the spinoff. In particular, conservation planning. There appeared to be a market for people who didn’t want to just take priorities established by another organization. They wanted to understand the data and have a process and tool to really incorporate biodiversity conservation in with what they do.

Most organizations are not conservation organizations. They have a need to integrate a lot of different societal needs in terms of land use planning, infrastructure, forest products, etc. That’s a big area of work for us – helping these organizations to integrate this data using good, sound methodology (a lot of which was developed by groups like TNC) but keeping it specific to their missions.

Describe your role as Director of Conservation Planning and Ecosystem Management at NatureServe.

I was brought on initially to help manage development of our decision support system, NatureServe Vista. I had dabbled in some proof of concept decision support systems when I was with USGS GAP Analysis Program.  When the spinoff [from TNC] happened, we were given a very generous grant by the Doris Duke Foundation to develop a decision support tool that could bring a lot of the rigor of good conservation planning methodology to those sectors that had a lot of effect on whether things were conserved or not, but had low capacity to do a lot of this work themselves. Specifically, I’m speaking about county land use planners. That was one example of that market we were asked to try and help. I was brought in to help conceive of this thing, develop the methodology behind it and work with a great engineering team to get it built.

From there, once we had the tool, many organizations who were interested in it said that they wanted help getting started with it. Though it was designed for those groups to be able to work with the tool unsupported once the initial database and parameters were established; the concepts were still too new for them to readily move forward with on their own. So we started doing more and more of that type of consulting work and decided to make it official in terms of establishing a conservation planning department.

The EBM part of that, in terms of this department of Conservation Planning and Ecosystem Management, really came about through the [David and Lucile] Packard Foundation recognizing that we had done a lot of surveys of these technology tools out there. They commissioned us to do a rapid survey of existing tools for coastal marine ecosystem management. Over a couple of years that ended up growing into our EBM tools program and network, which is doing lot of great things and seeing a lot of success now. Basically, we expanded the idea of this department, recognizing that conservation planning really is a subset of ecosystem-based management.

Tell us about how some of your clients are using GIS. Are they using it for visual assessment, or are they getting into hard core analysis? Can you share a few illustrative examples?

I think it’s all over the board right now. In terms of NatureServe, all of our clients are familiar with GIS and recognize its uses and value. Some of them may not have the in-house capacity to do very advanced GIS, or they may find it more efficient to have us do the analyses and deliver the products to them. By the time they’ve come to us, organizations recognize the value of what GIS can do. We’ll work with them to understand the question they’re trying to answer. Most do involve “hard core” analysis, and to the degree that a client is interested, we’ll involve them in thinking through that analysis.

We certainly do work with organizations that do get into “hard core” analysis themselves. A lot of the time they start out with simpler analyses with very visual results that are compelling and can really help gradually bring people on to their understanding of issues and what kind of direction they want to take in terms of advanced analysis.

A good case study is our very first pilot project, which we used to originally figure out what our NatureServe Vista tool needed to do. We worked with the Land Trust of Napa County. They very much wanted a rigorous process to develop their biodiversity conservation priorities. One of the simple things we helped them understand is that they were obtaining a lot of easements on land that was already regulated from development. They really didn’t need to be going after easements on these lands – or even accepting the management overhead of donated land – because those places would already be protected. They could be a lot more systematic in identifying areas that were valuable and at risk.

Another example is in Puerto Rico. The Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico really wanted to visualize how their conservation priorities were distributed throughout the island. One of the “a-ha” moments for them came after we did this rigorous analysis. They could see that in order to meet broad biodiversity conservation goals, conservation needed to happen in a very distributed way throughout the island because of the patterns of existing land use and different micro environments across the island. Biodiversity was distributed in a very patchy way. So, as opposed to having just a handful of very consolidated reserves, it was going to require a much different approach — dealing with all of the different municipal land use planning activities, for example.

In these cases, how has the analysis translated into action?

Napa County is a typical, very small land trust with one and a half funded positions. They really self-identified that they weren’t a candidate to take up these tools and data and do this stuff on their own. They needed to focus their efforts in other ways. We put the products together in simpler ways. We took a lot of GIS results and put them into Excel spreadsheets that they could reference by parcel ID number, for example. This made it very easy for them to search for properties that had the kind of biodiversity values they were interested in and that had been prioritized through some of the more advanced analyses. They continued to use that information in their strategic decisions. I can say that in Napa, there was a $29 million land purchase that was done based on our results.

Puerto Rico is going in a different direction. The conservation trust has pretty good GIS and scientific capability. We are in the process right now, after having done the initial work for them, of handing off the tools and databases and training them in how to do their own analyses and keep the databases maintained. Both of these organizations are using these analyses to acquire easements or land for biodiversity.

You hold an MLA from the University of Pennsylvania and a BLA from Cal Poly. Tell me a little bit about when and how you became interested in GIS and began incorporating it into your academic and professional pursuits.

GIS is probably a natural link with my training in landscape architecture, with that need to think spatially and view the world in terms of maps and plans. The GIS work started back in 1982 – this is ancient history! Back in those days, if you wanted to do GIS, you were working with custom written software on a university mainframe computer. At the time, I was probably doing some innovative things in terms of land use planning with GIS. I saw a huge potential for it, but it was just a bit crude. We had to do things like manually type in soil codes in every pixel of a project. You had to choose your typographical characters with the intention of displaying suitability based on how dark they would print.

Six years after I finished undergrad, I went to get my graduate degree working with Ian McHarg, the father of ecologically-based design who wrote Design With Nature back in the 1960s. I was really surprised by how far GIS had come in just a short time. I was doing work with IDRISI, OSUMAP, early Arc Info software and I saw some really big jumps. By that time, I thought this really was a very useful tool and should be used routinely in planning.

I did some pretty interesting work with a land trust in the Philadelphia region that was trying to promote large lot development as a tool for restoration of neotropical migratory bird habitat. The idea was to subdivide a landscape into large parcels, but to do it in a way that would facilitate restoration to grow interior forest and reduce edge so that they could increase the population and viability of neotropical migratory birds.

From there, I went on to the Gap Analysis Program run by USGS. I was the New Mexico GAP coordinator as my first job and then went on to become the national coordinator. In GAP, we had to create a lot of this stuff from scratch. Tools and methods didn’t really exist for the kind of advanced remote sensing we were trying to do to map very fine levels of natural vegetation types. The more demanding part was inventing methods for predictive distribution models of species. A lot of that work inspired many researchers and tool developers and now we have really great approaches to those things that make what we did back then look very crude. But what we did was the start.

Once I went on to the national GAP program, I had developed this interest in decision support systems before I even knew the term existed. I got some modest amounts of funding to work with the University of Wyoming on a couple proof-of-concept tools for biodiversity conservation. With my background, my interest was in integrating biodiversity conservation with land use planning. We invented a tool called BEST, the Biodiversity Expert Systems Tool. It never really got any use, but again, it was proof-of concept that we developed. From there, I drew the interest of NatureServe when it was just getting launched with the grant from the Doris Duke Foundation to build Vista. I was asked to come on and help develop that tool.

So were you the kind of kid who played video games one minute and then ran outside to explore your local forest?

I wasn’t that big of a video gamer, as that stuff came out when I was a bit older. But it’s interesting. I see my daughter doing things that I used to do when I was younger — like holding your fingers up in front of you to measure the shapes and angles of things beyond you. That might be a hallmark of people that tend to think spatially. My interest in the environment started with my mother giving me a pack of radish seeds and watching them grow. That was probably a start to a lot of what I’m interested in now.

I lived in Spokane, Washington at ages that I understand to be critical for how children develop their sense about how they relate to the environment. I was in a great situation where I was in a development at the edge of a wilderness area. We were out all day building tree houses, damming creeks, trapping snakes and climbing through bushes. That was probably an influential time for me to develop that sense of the world around me.

One of NatureServe’s key goals is to make biodiversity a standard consideration in all conservation and natural resource management decisions by making it simple for all sectors of society to access and use high-quality biodiversity information. How close do you think you are to achieving that goal?

In terms of NatureServe’s data, I can say that our web site NatureServe Explorer  gets a huge amount of use. I’d say the state, provincial and Latin American country members have a lot of routine use of their data. It depends on requirements to use that data in these different jurisdictions. In the U.S. in particular, the data is used in almost every single EIS. A lot of states go beyond that in terms of requirements for how the data should be used. I think there is a tremendous use of the data in very routine ways by planning and development consultants.

The area where there is still a lot of work to be done is really in how the data actually gets used. We’re increasing the access through a new on-line tool, Landscope.org. This is from our Landscope America program, which is in partnership with the National Geographic Society. It’s in its earliest stages and it’s going to grow a lot in the next year or two. The aim of that is not just to give people raw data, but a lot of synthesized information. For example, we will be having all of The Nature Conservancy’s eco-regional priority sites up for people to be able to view within their own jurisdictions and context. They’ll be able to view what organizations like TNC and others have identified as valuable areas for conservation, whether its biodiversity, farmland, or other open space values. That’s an attempt to bring the power of organizations with a lot of expertise to all organizations in the U.S. that may want to use this information. In particular, there was a focus from the funder on low capacity organizations like land trusts to be able to use this synthesized information.

Our NatureServe Vista tool vista and other tools that people can find through ebmtools.org really come into play in trying to boost how people use this data. I’d say for a lot of organizations, this still tends to be more of a visual overlay process. They think, “I’m going to bring up a map of rare and imperiled species or other types of information and overlay my plans, see if there’s a visual correspondence, and then I’m going to react in a basic way by avoiding those places.”

What we’re trying to do with some of these desktop tools that are being designed more and more for common users, such as planners and resource managers, is to bring fairly advanced analytical capability to them but in ways that they can more readily incorporate with the way they do their business. For example, they’ll be able to do things like real goal seeking for biodiversity. So, instead of saying, “We’re going to always avoid a wetland,” or “we’ll try and maintain a few of these patches of this particular forest type where we can,” they can take a very rigorous, goal-oriented approach to meeting a set of conservation objectives.

Would it be possible for you to give me an example of how a client of yours was able to take a more rigorous, goal-oriented approach using NatureServe Vista?

We’re still early in the process. The tool has only been out for a couple of years, and most of these projects are years in the making. In the Lake Erie region, we’re working with a very large partnership of 40 organizations, which is called the Lake Erie Allegheny Partnership for Biodiversity. The organization was looking for a common tool all of its members could use to plan for biodiversity;  so they did a very intensive web search, looking for tools to help them. They found our tool, Vista, and settled on it as the tool of choice. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been working with them, providing a series of workshops to explain the methodology and what the tools can do. That resulted in them getting funding to start off with a single watershed project. We’re supporting them in terms of relating the methodology to what they need to do, providing them with technical support, and helping them with some data issues, such as creating an ecosystem map out of raw land cover information from them. But they are now doing all of the hands on work with the tools themselves.

What do you think is the greatest barrier to widespread acceptance/use of GIS in ecological restoration, conservation planning and regenerative design?

That is a great question, and something I have had to tackle very much. I have always been involved with fairly innovative programs, like GAP Analysis Program  when it first started. I’ve had to understand people’s barriers to acceptance and really think about some solutions. One of the conclusions that I’ve come to now that GIS is a well accepted tool, thinking about the adoption of more advanced or rigorous and defensible methods of using GIS and these associated special tools is that a lot of planning regulations, methods and requirements by all levels of government (and even some non-governmental organizations) were established before GIS existed or was perfected before a lot of the really great remote sensing data existed. So what you have are approaches that don’t demand the rigor that can be provided by these tools.

The default seems to be very much the “let’s just gather around a table with a paper map and the right, knowledgeable people and draw shapes and make notes.” What I refer to as the 70s approach to planning is, unfortunately, very much alive and well at all levels. I still see this used by federal land management agencies in their land use planning. As one quoted to me when I asked how they used GIS, he said they use it as a map making tool once the real decisions had been made by their staff. In terms of working with these kinds of groups that have that desire, the lynchpin problem is giving them enough breathing room in their work and processes to allow them to investigate alternative ways to do things before totally shifting to new approaches. I go back to my mantra that you just can’t drop these things (new tools and approaches) out by parachute; organizations have to have the desire for change),

There was a great book written years ago called The Diffusion of Innovations  that examined what it takes for society to adopt an innovation after it has been developed by a researcher. The author found that it typically takes 20 years from the time somebody first published an idea to the time it was in common practice. They came up with a list of steps, or aspects of innovation diffusion that were required for adoption. A lot of it hit on the aspect of giving people breathing room and making it easy for them to try out the innovation without wholesale redesign of their organization and the way they do work.

This is why a lot of the work we do is funded by other parties. Someone will fund us to work with an organization that they’d like to see adopt better practices. So we can go to that organization and say, “We’ll do all the heavy lifting at the start. We’ll take your data and reformat it for these tools. We will bring in other data. We’ll bring the experts together to populate the models in these tools. We will run through the initial analyses and will be able to demonstrate all of this for you. We’ll make it easier for you to adopt this, because it’ll all be formatted in the way you do your work and in a way that will allow you to maintain it on your own.”

We’re still early in the steps of some of those projects to understand just how successful we may or may not be, but that really is a clear barrier. For example, we’re working with the Bureau of Land Management right now and I’d say that their leadership back in Washington really is starting to recognize this problem. They are starting to address it through programs to get training and the right kind of support to their field offices to allow them to start adopting more advanced ways of dealing with data.

NatureServe is an international organization, serving the U.S. and parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. Where do you think people are most ahead of the curve in terms of applying GIS to ecological restoration and conservation planning efforts? Most behind?

We also work in China. We’re doing some consulting there with TNC. We’ve also had our tools adopted in other places, where people are not asking us directly for our involvement. We’ve sold licenses for Vista software in Norway, for example. Through our work with the Packard Foundation in coastal marine EBM tools program, we’re expecting to be working in the Eastern Pacific soon as well.

Certainly, among groups that build tools or develop rigorous conservation planning approaches, Australia has long been a world leader in developing tools and methodologies. Take, for example, Marxan. It is an expert-only tool, but in terms of conservation experts, it is probably considered the lead tool. Although Australia has been a leader in developing methods and tools, they still have the same challenges as exist anywhere in terms of trying to affect real change in conservation at local levels.

The U.S., on the other hand, is showing some real leadership in building tools that specifically address those local levels of decision making. Again, I point to our tool, NatureServe Vista. The U.S. EPA  and NOAA Coastal Services Center  have also done a great job of building tools for local governments and resource managers. So that’s an area that the U.S. is contributing to right now and those tools can be extended to other parts of the world which our EBM Tools program aims to do.

I don’t think one region has really nailed it in terms of having all of the sociopolitical issues solved that create the demand for GIS and good tools, and the tools are being used in wonderful ways.  There are pockets in different sectors. In some cases, a good GIS map or the existence of a tool can stimulate people to want to go further, where they don’t necessarily see the barriers that they might have otherwise. As I said earlier: you don’t drop these things by parachute and great planning suddenly starts to happen. You have to have a society or community driven approach that creates the demand for inclusiveness, more rigor and more science.

In response to your question about areas that are behind… places where there is still a lot to be gained or lost in terms of biodiversity and where capacity and funding to do something about it is low…I’d say: Africa (with the exception of South Africa, which is one of the world leaders), South America, Southeast Asia, Eastern Pacific Islands. There are some real concerted efforts by some leading institutions to build capacity there. This is being done by the major NGOs, like World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Society, TNC  and other funding organizations.

Globally, I’d say the marine system is under enormous threat right now. It’s really starting from scratch in terms of building the governance that has the authority and capability to do something about it outside the 200 mile limits of the different countries. There are a lot of positive indications, though, that the marine system is getting a lot of attention. Even though there’s a long way to go, there is a lot of work that’s being done to set the stage.

What about within the U.S.? Do you find the most innovative use of GIS to be in growing areas, or areas that are already highly developed?

The more populous and wealthy the jurisdiction, the better the adoption of sophisticated tools and methods tends to be. The rural areas have the most to conserve, but they often lack the capacity, awareness and, frequently, political interest in addressing conservation. This is a problem all of us in the conservation community struggle painfully over. How do we get better tools and methods adopted in the places where it’s going to count the most in terms of conservation?

There are some great examples of how to address it, though. There are some great programs like the Orton Family Foundation’s “Heart and Soul” grants, which bring good technologically supported visioning processes for land use planning to rural areas. It’s a small foundation and they can only offer a small number of grants each year, but they’re developing really good case studies for what it takes for these small capacity, rural areas to adopt sophisticated planning approaches that are supported by technological tools.

NOAA and EPA have also done some wonderful things in terms of technical assistance programs for rural communities. But they can only do so much per year too. At this stage, I’d say we should target some key areas where there are some priority problems or values and generate the case studies and knowledge to inform others. Then it’s up to these communities to decide that they want to do these things and then find the funding to get it done.

There are also what we call “intermediaries,” service providers to these communities, which can help lower the bar by doing some of the initial data gathering and more advanced analyses and then turn the data and tools over to the communities and provide them training to keep up with it. A couple of good examples of intermediaries on the East Coast are The Piedmont Environmental Council  and the Canaan Valley Institute. 

It looks like you had some experience early on in your career as an LA for a private firm.

Out of undergrad, I spent the six intervening years working in a pretty traditional landscape design/build company.

How do you think use and acceptance of GIS among private consulting firms has changed from the time you were with that firm to now?

That particular firm did small scale projects where you would use a CADD program instead of GIS. In general I would say that professional practitioners use GIS all the time. The question is how are they using it and are they using it in the most advanced ways possible? I’d say the answer is very mixed.

We consulted with a firm in San Diego that does land use planning, but specializes in habitat conservation planning. They are doing as much advanced work as I’ve seen by any of the really advanced conservation NGOs or academic labs. They may have been a bit more unusual. The kind of market that we need to affect are the vast number of consulting firms that do the most amount of planning for local governments and federal land management agencies. They use GIS a lot, but they could use more exposure to more advance methods as well as more advanced tools.

What are some of the most innovative uses of GIS technology, software and/or tools that you have seen recently applied to the protection, conservation, restoration and/or regeneration of natural resources? Would that firm in San Diego be a good example?

What they were doing is just good state of the practice right now. It wouldn’t be something that academics or advanced non-profits in this field would consider innovative. I’m in the position where I get access not only to cutting edge, but bleeding edge developments in the field. I also work with people who are still in the 70s in practice.

What are some of the things you’re seeing on the bleeding edge?

Some of the things we’re either aware of or might be party to might not be pushing GIS technology but are innovative in terms of combining some of the advanced methods of conservation prioritization with other tools. For example, The Nature Conservancy is trying to combine coastal and marine conservation with coastal hazard mitigation. They are using tools like Marxan and combining it with CVAT (Community Vulnerability Assessment Tool)  from NOAA. I’m involved in a group that is taking that further in terms of integrating land use, hazard, and conservation planning, combining multiple tools.

Tell me about some of the ecosystem based software and tools you are involved in developing. You mentioned Landscope.org. Are there any other items in the pipeline now that you’re excited about?

A focus for us as well as a lot of other tool developers right now is on interoperability among tools rather than trying to build the super tool. There are still people out there who are trying to build the super tool, but my conclusion is that they will continue to fail miserably. One reason is that when you’re building a tool that is meant to address multiple sectors crossing ecosystems, there’s just a lot of innovation in those different sectors and ecosystems dispersed globally. The best thing you can do is really look at who is developing a tool for a particular sector or ecosystem process. They’re going to be able to maintain the innovation there and you’re going to want to continue to combine your tool with their tool.

For example, one of the projects we’re really excited about is interoperating our tool NatureServeVista  with NOAA’s N-SPECT (Nonpoint Source Pollution and Erosion Comparison Tool). With that combination, we extend the use of Vista into a much better way of aquatic biodiversity planning. N-SPECT does all of that advanced modeling of hydrologic processes and how pollution gets off of the land and into the water bodies. That was a function missing from our tool. It would have cost us a lot to try and bring the expertise together and build that functionality rather than just building connection between our tool and that tool.

We have a proposal under review now to add a marine pollution plume modeling tool to that as well, so we’d be able to promote a vision where a land use planner could be proposing a different comprehensive plan for their coastal watershed and input that into these tools and then, in a fairly automated and relatively quick way, be able to get the response of that particular plan alternative in terms of what would be it’s terrestrial biodiversity impacts; what would be its water quality impacts in the river as well as, say an estuary; and what would be the biodiversity impacts on aquatic species and habitat. Then, have those same tools support their being able to make intelligent changes to their plan. So they may be able to see that their plan may actually impact a sea grass habitat or reef community and be able to trace back the impact to where on the land the sediment was being generated, and be able to propose a more compatible land use.  This would be a toolkit to address integrated land sea planning.

Once these toolkits are developed, are they available for anyone to use?

It varies. They would be available for anyone with the intent that if you can pull together the supporting experts to help populate the database and parameters and you have a modicum of data to run these tools, the tools should be usable by any institution in the world. Some of the tools have a cost associated with them. NOAA’s tools are free, but you can’t get tech support for them. There’s a charge for our Vista software, but there is live tech support and live training available.

One of the issues we’re hoping to address through our EBM Tools Network  is the idea of tool sustainability. A lot of these tools have not necessarily been developed in a concerted way thinking about things like training, tech support, sustainability. They’ve been developed by government agencies, academic labs and, in some cases, by a non-profit organization like us. Our network, which contains all of these different types of institutions is that regardless of the institution, the tools are being aimed at this market of conservation and ecosystem management, which is considered a rather low-resource, small market with a couple of tens of thousands of users, versus millions of users. So, it doesn’t matter if you’re NOAA, NatureServe, or an academic lab; we all struggle with the problem of how to sustain the tools. Everyone would love to see these tools be open-source, free, and have free live tech support and training programs, but nobody wants to pay for that. We hope to put together a collaborative among the tool developers that can reach out to the foundations and government programs that fund tools and help them understand the issues of sustainability and develop an approach that will hopefully keep a well-maintained, well-supported core set of tools out there. 

Can you tell our readers about any GIS tools and/or software that is currently in development which might really help, or even revolutionize the way CP, RD, ER work is done?

The areas where I see a lot of research and development going on right now are in ecosystem services and very closely associated conservation economics. For the last several years, there have been some tools available through some academic labs addressing economic tradeoff analyses. They haven’t really been quite ready for prime time yet. We haven’t seen broad adoption of these tools, but there is some well funded work going on. The Natural Capital Project  is funding development of a tool to help with associating the costs and benefits of conservation action and applying economic principles to that analysis.

A good friend of mine, Bob Pressey, a leader in the field of conservation methods and tools, is now working out of James Cook University in Australia on a return on investment tool.  Chris Costello and David Stoms at the University of California Santa Barbara have been real leaders in the research and development of these types of tools.

Really good work is going on. Stay tuned. You’ll start to see some of these tools hitting the market soon. The idea is to get these tools in the hands of planners and managers, not just a handful of academic experts.

Have you experienced any situations where GIS was misused or misinterpreted?

The area we just talked about [ecosystem services and economics] is rife with that potential. Once you start talking economics, the bar gets raised pretty high in terms of level of precision and confidence. I’ve certainly seen examples.

I have another case in mind to answer this question. A county in the U.S. really wanted to have a conservation component to their comprehensive plan. They hooked up with somebody who was aware of one of these very advanced tools for being able to generate conservation priorities. Unfortunately, I think that person didn’t do a good job of communicating to the county how that tool really should be used to contribute to the process. That person also may not have quite understood how to run the tool properly and how to integrate the results of the tool. For example, in isolation, this tool will identify a set of land units (e.g., parcels, hexagons, squares, watersheds) that can most efficiently meet all of your conservation objectives. What it doesn’t say is what you should do about it in those places. Our tool, Vista, is about helping you introduce those kinds of solutions into that sort of policy environment so you can make good decisions. In this case the user just took the raw results from that expert tool and said, well, the tool identified 70% of the county as being needed to help address the conservation objectives. This was interpreted as, “we need to put 70% of our county in a bioreserve.” So not only were the results of that analysis rejected, but the entire program to have a biodiversity component to their plan was rejected. It was all because of inappropriate use of the tool.

Other than the points you have already made in our interview, what is one key thing you’d like to communicate to our readers about GIS?

A lot of GIS practitioners really need to start looking into what sort of decision support modeling tools that been built to help make their lives easier. I think many of them have been trained to try and figure out every analysis on their own. They don’t tend to ask for help very much or look into tools that can automate things.

We all can probably figure out how to do our taxes with Excel, but we’d have to program Excel with hundreds of formulas to make it work, versus just buying TurboTax, which can walk you through the process. There are hundreds of tools out there that can automate what people need to do for their work. I encourage people to look at ebmtools.org, for example, to see some of these advanced modeling and decision support tools.

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