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The Role of Environmental NGOs: Russian Challenges American Lessons - Proceedings of a Workshop EMERGING TOOLS FOR DEVELOPING, INTEGRATING, AND DISTRIBUTING CONSERVATION INFORMATION M.E.Schaefer Association for Biodiversity Information Both the United States and Russia face a range of challenges related to environmental protection and natural resource conservation. Urban sprawl, loss of biodiversity, air and water pollution, hazardous waste disposal, and global climate change are among the problems our nations are working to address. Science is the foundation upon which effective solutions to these problems must be built, and geospatial data are fundamental components of that foundation. Key geospatial data sets include satellite and aerial imagery of the landscape, critical wildlife habitat and rare species, point sources of pollution, waste disposal sites, and carbon sources and sinks. The Association for Biodiversity Information (ABI) coordinates a network of organizations dedicated to building knowledge about the diversity of life, primarily in the Western Hemisphere. ABI is comprised of 85 components called natural heritage programs in the United States and conservation data centers in Canada, the Caribbean area, and Latin America. The natural heritage network was built gradually over a 25-year period. A central office in Arlington, Virginia, houses 75 staff that work to advance the network by developing data standards and methodologies, database management software, and tools to support conservation decision-making. We specialize in generating information on the location and status of rare and imperiled species and ecological communities. This fall, ABI released NatureServe, an on-line encyclopedia of life containing information on the location and status of 50,000 plants, animals, and ecological communities in North America. This will be expanded to Latin America early next year. ABI also develops tools that encourage the use of biological information in the decision-making process.
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The Role of Environmental NGOs: Russian Challenges American Lessons - Proceedings of a Workshop ABI’s basic approach to informing conservation decision-making can be applied anywhere in the world. We are happy to share the lessons we have learned in building and operating our organization. THE POWER OF GEOGRAPHIC INFORMATION SYSTEMS A geographic information system (GIS) is a powerful tool for organizing, displaying, and analyzing geospatial data. As the technology has advanced, it has become increasingly accessible. Just five years ago GIS software was expensive, ran on high-end computers, and required significant technical training to operate. Today the software is relatively inexpensive, runs on personal computers, and requires little training to use. GIS is now used routinely in the United States at the federal, state, and local government levels and is used by most environmental NGOs that have scientific activities. GIS is a powerful tool because it makes possible the integration of biological, physical, and socioeconomic information, allowing a more comprehensive depiction of data relevant to an issue. It is particularly helpful in land use planning as a tool that facilitates the organization of a wide variety of technical information and its depiction in a useful format. The utility of GIS is advancing rapidly in parallel with development of related technologies. Inexpensive global positioning systems (GPS) allow one to quickly and accurately link data with a precise geographic location. The Internet makes it possible to readily transfer data around the world. Wireless technologies allow the immediate entry of field data as well as its instant transfer to home research or to other laboratories. Advanced commercial aerial and satellite imagery makes it easy to incorporate high resolution images of the landscape into a GIS. The parallel development of technologies and capabilities such as these makes GIS a more powerful and sophisticated tool while broadening the range of users taking advantage of it. FROM GIS TO DSS Decision support systems (DSS) are now evolving. These systems couple GIS with analytical tools, models, and visualizations. The bulk of these systems are in the research and development phase and are being piloted in various locations around the world. Some are emerging for broader application. DSS’s are particularly helpful in land use planning. Models and visualizations can be used to help citizens and government officials develop alternative urban growth scenarios. For example, under one scenario an urban center might continue growing unconstrained as it has in the past. Under another, growth might be clustered around existing population centers and transportation systems. A third
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The Role of Environmental NGOs: Russian Challenges American Lessons - Proceedings of a Workshop scenario might optimize opportunities to preserve ecologically sensitive areas as well as set aside open space for recreation uses. Each scenario can include detailed land use information, depending upon the needs of users. Land use resulting from a particular scenario can be depicted at intervals in the future, say 10, 20, or 50 years depending upon the model. Visualizations of this kind are particularly helpful in engaging citizens in the planning process. Visualizations can also be useful in describing historical patterns of land use. LandSat imagery dating back to the 1970s can provide a 25-year depiction of landscape change. Aerial imagery sometimes allows visualizations as far back as the 1950s. And old maps make it possible to depict land use going back several hundred years. When used for conservation purposes, historical visualizations allow descriptions of changes in vegetative cover and loss of habitat, as well as broader ecosystem decline. BRIDGING THE CANYON BETWEEN MANAGEMENT AND SCIENCE GIS and DSS are powerful tools for linking science and resource management, or more broadly, science and public policy. As such, they bridge the gap—and at times the canyon—between data and decision-making. They are especially helpful in organizing and integrating physical, biological, and socioeconomic information. Coupled with visualizations these tools catalyze and enable citizen participation in the decision-making process. Since NGO activities often involve promoting public understanding of issues and contributions to their resolution, GIS and DSS are tools that these organizations should take full advantage of. These powerful technologies can significantly improve the effectiveness of NGOs by allowing them to readily make use of science to inform the public policy process.
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