Precision Conservation

LiDAR is a surveying method that can be used to create high resolution land cover datasets that can, in turn, be used to practice precision conservation. Photo courtesy of USGS

As many of you may know, the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy has been active in land conservation for nearly three decades. Our mission is to preserve and enhance the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. To do this, we have followed the traditional model of working with private landowners, businesses and local municipal governments to preserve land and improve the land management practices that private landowners, foresters, farmers and others utilize on their properties.

While there is conservation value in almost every parcel of property in the county, not all parcels have equal conservation value. For example, a relatively flat tract of land with permeable soil types will generally not have as much risk of erosion as a property with steep slopes and erodible soils. Development at such a property would run the risk of injecting soil into our waterways, which will “feed the weeds.” A recently abandoned farm that is reverting to forest may not be as critical to protect as would a large wetland system that filters water and reduces the impact of high rain events. Given the extent of human impact on the planet today, there is a case to be made for almost all conservation activities, but from a feasibility standpoint, land trusts around the nation must make decisions on which are priorities and where to best focus their limited resources.

The Chesapeake Conservancy in Annapolis, Maryland, has become a national leader in using the most advanced geographic information system (GIS) technology to assess where the greatest conservation need can be found. Using high resolution land cover classification datasets, they are able to produce mapping information that is nearly 1,000 times more accurate than traditional data can provide. This helps their organization and partners practice precision conservation, which creates more effective and impactful projects. It also helps save time and money in implementing Best Management Practices for individuals, corporations and governments.

In order to develop these datasets, a type of mapping data called “LiDAR” needs to be acquired. LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging, a type of remote sensing. Essentially, an airplane with a special type of laser system set up flies over the Earth, constantly sending laser pulses down to the surface of the planet. The information these pulses contain as they bounce back to the airplane is analyzed, and a map that is accurate to within one meter (a touch over 3 feet) is produced. This allows for the incredible accuracy in mapping mentioned above.

CWC seeks to follow suit using the methods that the Chesapeake Conservancy’s Conservation Innovation Center developed. Drafting our own countywide strategic conservation plan has been a priority for several years; however, Western NY lacks access to LiDAR data. In 2016, CWC worked closely with the NYS Office of Information Technology Services, the United States Geological Survey and a number of local and county partners to apply for funding to have an airplane fly over our region and conduct this type of data collection project. We were pleased that NYS received funding for this process and that this data is likely to be made available in 2018.

At CWC, we seek to utilize the best science available at every step of our decision-making process. A strategic conservation plan will guide our efforts and streamline our projects, and the acquisition of LiDAR would be instrumental to this work. This data will also be used by many in the county for disaster management, municipal planning and other work in the conservation realm. We helped spearhead the effort to get this funding and provided NYS with more than a dozen letters of support from local conservation groups, municipalities and academia that spoke loudly and clearly of our collective need for better data. With this in hand, we will have a clearer picture of what is actually going on “on the ground.” Where we previously only saw a forest, we will now be able to pick out access roads, first order streams, eroded stream banks and more. Buildings, streets, trees and even curbs will be visible whereas only “development” was able to be seen before. This will aid everyone in appropriately planning the work necessary to deliver basic services and will specifically aid the CWC in delivering on our core mission.

For more information on LiDAR, contact CWC Conservation Lands Manager Jonathan Townsend at jonathan@chautauquawatershed.org or 664-2166. For more information on the Chesapeake Conservancy, visit chesapeakeconservancy.org.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or www.facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.

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