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"Where Things Are"

This excerpt from the August 2007 issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine gives an interesting account of how GPS technology is used by scientists in the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Read on to learn about some of the ways this technology makes good science a little easier!

Professional uses for conservation work
“We’re all about where things are,” says Bill Smith, a conservation biologist with a special interest in dragonflies. “We use waypoints to describe where we are and what’s there at a specific point in time. By comparing repeat visits to the waypoint over time we can note any changes.”
Before GPS technology was available, field biologists used aerial photos and quad maps to document the location of observations. It was and is difficult to precisely document in latitude and longitude where a sample point is from photos or maps. “An affordable hand-held GPS unit does it within a few feet,” says Smith. “In the case of field observation, GPS provides a degree of accuracy of observation unavailable to researchers only a few years ago.”
Smith notes that “repeatability is a basic premise of good science.” To that end, over the next four years the DNR’s Division of Forestry will establish 4,000 permanent survey plots to measure changes in forest cover over time. Each plot will be visited once every four years by a forester who will meticulously record data on tree sizes and species, ground cover species and abundance, amount and type of woody debris, soil types, depth of coarse organic material such as leaves and needles, and a number of other environmental benchmarks.
“These recordings will give us a very accurate picture of what kinds of changes are taking place over time in our forest,” said Teague Prichard, DNR public lands specialist. “The power of this project is in the ability to revisit the exact same place time and time to repeat and compare measurements. Each plot will have latitude and longitude coordinates and the foresters will use hand-held GPS units to guide them to the survey plots. Before this technology was available, foresters would use survey stakes and flagging, all of which can disappear or be difficult or impossible to find four years later.”
GPS is indispensable in aviation today. “Visual flight rules are still important for orientation and navigation in conservation aviation work, but GPS adds a degree of accuracy and repeatability we never had before,” says John Jorgensen, chief pilot in the DNR aviation program.
“We use it every time we go up; not only as a navigational aid but as a precision tool that has many, many, specific applications for conservation programs,” Jorgensen says. “It provides easy and accurate locations for everything from aerial population surveys for deer and wolves to nest counts for eagles, ospreys and trumpeter swans. It’s also used to define areas that will be sprayed for gypsy moths and to determine the size of a forest fire.”
GPS-equipped aircraft also have a public safety and law enforcement mission. Using GPS, pilots are able to pinpoint possible violations and pass information along to wardens on the ground for investigation. And GPS-generated latitude and longitude coordinates are used to direct initial attack ground crews to wildfires spotted from the air. Aerial photography benefits from GPS as new cameras are available that include GPS coordinates on the photo, similar to the familiar time and date stamps.
GPS adds an additional measure of safety in the cockpit, says Jorgensen. The location of towers and other structures that are a concern to low-flying survey aircraft can be programmed into an on-board GPS unit, alerting the pilot to the danger.

GPS coordinates are used to note environmental changes on the landscape, such as the locations of abandoned wells, new wells, spill sites, underground buried tanks and field inspections.

© 2007, Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, excerpted with permission.


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