As the largest land conservation organization in Canada, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) relies on a vast amount of data in its work to protect some of the country’s most important natural areas. From hand-held GPS devices to camera-equipped drones, NCC staff use a range of technologies to identify natural areas in need of protection, and to monitor properties that NCC manages or owns.
Conservation in a high-tech world
From hand-held GPS devices and trail cams to LIDAR, NCC uses leading technology to support conservation initiatives
The Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) conservation work is grounded in data – it’s how the non-profit organization identifies areas that are in need of protection, and how it implements conservation actions to safeguard the more than 2.7 million acres (1.1 million hectares) it manages or owns.
Since its founding in 1962, NCC has relied on the leading technologies available to collect and process data. Over the past dozen years, that has meant a move away from paper-based systems to the use of tools developed with the latest technologies, whether on the ground or in the air.
Research on the ground
In B.C., NCC staff carry iPads with them during their fieldwork, using specialized apps to collect GPS-linked data and the tablet’s camera to document observations. Staff in other areas of the country use hand-held GPS devices to record information and track management and stewardship activities.
“One of NCC’s key criteria for securing properties is the presence of significant species or habitat for those species,” says JC Laurence, NCC’s director of conservation information. “So we need to regularly go out and take inventories of species – rare or otherwise – and collect a host of other data that might be important to us for that property, from vegetation communities to the presence of human-made features like fences.”
Taking to the air
Given the size of many of the properties protected by NCC, there are often more efficient ways of capturing information. “With many of our extremely large properties, it would be very difficult for our staff to physically go out and walk that area to collect data,” says Mr. Laurence. “It’s much more efficient to take aerial images or videos rather than sending someone hiking across a large property.”
These images are used in different ways, from identifying areas that provide critically important habitat and have high conservation value to assessing changes to a natural area over time.
“Aerial photos give us – at a specific point in time – a good sense of what’s on a property on a larger scale,” says Mr. Laurence. “They enable our staff to see how the habitat is changing, either in response to various environmental threats or as a result of our conservation actions, and can help us with planning by providing information about vegetation types, wetlands, structures, fences and more.”
In 2014, for example, an NCC volunteer donated the use of his drone to take images of phragmites, a potentially invasive species of reed at the Port Joli Natural Area in Nova Scotia. “We were then able to import the photos into GIS software and map the distribution of the species,” says Craig Smith, NCC’s program director in Nova Scotia. “This gave us a baseline for the future, enabling us to track the spread of this reed.”
However, drones have their limitations, says Mr. Smith. Most have limited battery life and are only useful at covering a relatively small area. For larger properties, NCC relies on small airplanes to gather high-resolution images for mapping, as it did in 2014 at Nova Scotia’s Pugwash Estuary when it wanted to establish baseline data for eel-grass: marine vegetation that provides habitat for young fish and shellfish and is a keystone species in the ecosystem.
Seeing things in three dimensions
Sometimes it’s valuable to have a three-dimensional view of a property, and that’s where technology like LIDAR comes in. Similar to radar, LIDAR sensors send laser beams across the surface of the Earth and record the signals that bounce back to create three-dimensional images of a site.
In 2013, NCC hired a company to take high-resolution aerial photographs and LIDAR images of its Waldron property in Alberta. “Given that this property spans 30,000 acres (12,140 hectares), we can’t use conventional means to document what’s here,” says Mike Gibeau, securement specialist for NCC’s Alberta Region.
“The combination of the two types of images gives us a very systematic and efficient way of documenting what’s on the site. We now have a complete digital elevation model of the human features on the site – such as power lines and fences – that we can use as we monitor the property.”
Many NCC properties, like the Waldron, are managed through conservation agreements – legally binding agreements that place restrictions on how the land is used, to better support the species that live there. These agreements are specific to the property and often include restrictions on not building homes or other structures, reflecting the ecological goals that NCC hopes to achieve at the site.
Mr. Gibeau says the LIDAR images provide an important baseline of data that can be used to monitor any changes on the property going forward. “We can see all the different vegetation types, and if we take another set of images in the future, we’ll be able to document changes in vegetation, the growth of trees and the extent of the grassland to assess the success of our conservation actions.”
Bringing it all together
All the data that NCC collects is uploaded into the organization’s Land Information System (LIS), a custom database developed for NCC. The LIS serves as a central repository for recording data in a consistent format and structure so that it can be readily accessed and shared by staff across the country.
The LIS also includes detailed information about each property, from descriptive profiles to maps, photography and legal documents. It is a rich resource for NCC to quickly access information for analysis – identifying areas for conservation, highlighting areas of the landscape that might be under threat and evaluating conservation efforts.
Technology evolves quickly, and NCC will continue to embrace new tools as they become available. Yet no matter how future data is collected, collated and analyzed, the end goal will remain the same: to protect Canada’s most ecologically significant land for the benefit of our children or grandchildren.
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