NRDC SWITCHBOARD - 7/15/11 Cutting Edge Aerial Technology

Jul 15, 2011
Natural Resources Defense Council
Switchboard: Natural Resource Defense Council Blog

What do whitebark pine and Missouri River trash have in common?

Louisa Willcox

Posted July 15, 2011 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

Answer: a new, cutting edge aerial technology to comprehensively assess problems.

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In 2009, when NRDC, the US Forest Service, and pilot Bruce Gordon conducted the first-ever assessment of whitebark pine damage from an unprecedented outbreak of mountain pine beetles, we did not know that we were developing a method with big, important implications for conservation. The “Landscape Assessment System” method uses geoferenced photo points, shot along specific flight lines from an airplane, to identify and map of areas of concern. In the case of whitebark, this mapping effort gave us the first comprehensive view of whitebark pine loss: about 86% dead or seriously damaged in the Greater Yellowstone by subwatershed.  Stunning stuff – and this was information that you simply could not get by hiking or other techniques such as remote sensing.

There has since been an explosion of interest in the LAS method, which has since been used to show the spaghetti mess of roads and gas rigs in Wyoming Upper Green River Basin. It is now being used to map stream side habitat that is especially important for wildlife.

And, earlier this summer, it was used to map trash piles along a 300-mile stretch of the Missouri River, to identify priority areas for clean up. You might not think that a airplane was necessary for this project, but trash piles up along the river in sometimes very remote places.  For the last 10 years a volunteer group, Missouri River Relief has been trying to clean up the Big Muddy. In a typical 3 hour clean up, the group collects and then properly disposes 10 tons of trash, everything from plastic bottles to refrigerators.

As part of its 10th year anniversary celebration, the group is planning a big barge cleanup for September of this year. To help identify priority areas and access routes for trash collection, the group hired trusted pilot Bruce Gordon, and GIS whiz Wally Macfarlane, one of our “whitebark warriors”, who developed the LAS method. With members of the press and Missouri River Relief, Bruce and Wally flew from Olathe KS to St Louis, surveying and photographing trash sites, as well as non-mapped roads like ATV trails that could be used to access the more remote sites.

As a result of this work, the group is now better prepared to make its upcoming “Clean Sweep” barge cleanup from Kansas City to St Louis even more effective. The group hopes their efforts will lead to more recycling and more appreciation of the river.

Although it might not look like it at first blush, we and Missouri River Relief have a lot in common. We share a watershed system which we both value, as well as a new technology that has facilitated our work. We share too devoted experts and conservation veterans Bruce Gordon and Wally Macfarlane, who have strengthened our work immeasurably.