GIS in Natural Resources

By Larry Sugarbaker, GIS Manager, Washington State, Department of Natural Resources

The next millennium will be about understanding the earth's limitationsThe year 2000 brings about a new millennium. In the face of time, it is insignificant. Maybe, however, we will pause and think about our actions, plan a little better, and genuinely create more respect for our environment. Local government, federal land managers, state agencies, and others have long talked about the notion of integrated natural resource management. Organizations build natural resource management plans, ecosystem plans, watershed management plans, and comprehensive plans. These efforts have brought about more favorable outcomes than would have resulted in their absence. Certainly, there are many examples of effective restoration and natural resource management programs. Yet the collective result is fewer fish in the rivers, unacceptable air quality, too little water, and congestion. This scenario is repeated around the world on many levels.

Citizen involvement, watershed management, and many natural resource initiatives have focused on creating community decision processes. This trend is prevalent throughout the United States and it is generally being applied to all aspects of governance. What we do in our backyard and what we dump down our sinks impacts the environment. Likewise, how a watershed is managed impacts the number of fish that are present, the amount of wood that is available for construction, the miles of trails that can be enjoyed, and the quality of water that we drink. Collectively, our actions influence waterfowl migration, global air quality, salmon populations, weather, and countless other things. It is critical that everyone from citizens to government and Business leaders work toward a common appreciation of these complex relationships that comprise our global environment. There is a need for these community place-based processes to interact to make better decisions for the environment. Geography is shared between people, towns, watersheds, ecoregions, countries, and continents. GIS will become the technology tool of choice to link citizens, government, and Business.

There are three key areas where GIS will help as we cross that line into the next millennium. First, technology will help us create integrated views of databases that span the levels of map scale, detail, and use to help understand the earth's ecology. It is unreasonable to think that we will have the institutional capacity to fully organize these databases and understand all that might be known about the earth. On the other hand, GIS technology will help scientists understand behavior within ecosystems. Data mining and analysis software functions will learn from the databases and begin to derive cause and effect. Today, we think of data objects as having behavior. In the future, software functions will have these traits as well.

Second, as the pendulum swings toward community place-based management, the need for information presentation tools is increasing. The ability of GIS to present information as virtual images and on maps will make it easier for everyone to see the impacts of decisions. Better yet, it will help everyone make better decisions and participate in the processes that lead to those decisions. GIS for everyone in this context becomes more than a catchy phrase.

Finally, we are beginning to see the emergence of shared data infrastructures. These are the spatial frameworks where organizations attach their data. In natural resources, these data frameworks include watercourses, shorelines, geology, topography, and other naturally occurring things. Other data such as political boundaries, street centerlines, and parcel data also comprises part of these framework infrastructures. They will become the path by which data is related to other data. An incredible new level of learning about interactions within ecosystems will occur. This will be possible because resource management organizations will be able to focus their technology investments in data other than watercourses, street centerlines, property ownership, elevation, and other framework data. Just like networks link computers, spatial data frameworks will begin to link databases.

The next millennium will be about slowing the rate of deforestation, improving water quality, restoring wildlife habitat, and generally understanding our earth's limitations. Decades of invasive and wasteful interactions with the environment have left a legacy that few if any of us would be proud to pass on to our children. My wildlife biology professor taught me most of what I know about the concepts of biological carrying capacity. She helped me understand the relationships between complex biological systems. We may have an endless debate about our ability to modify and increase the earth's capacity. There is no longer a need, however, to question the degradation of our earth's life systems. In many ways, the industrial age got us into this situation. The information age, still in its formative stage, will help get us out of it. Adding the spatial dimension to mainstream information technology may someday be viewed as one of the most significant advancements in information science. In fact, my prediction is that all information technology managers will be GIS managers.

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