Background image of Map showing original range of temperate rain forest and and salmon habitat.

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Ecotrust GIS: The brains behind the maps

Maps are a compelling way to tell a story, but we also provide the public with tools to explore data and tell their own stories.

Whenever anyone asks me what I do, I say “I’m a GIS analyst,” and then very quickly add, hopefully before their eyes glaze over, “I make maps.” My job title isn’t one that most people recognize, but the work of the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) community is becoming more visible to a wider public, via the ever expanding world of web maps and mapping apps. GIS professionals find, collect, investigate, and prepare the data that go into those maps.

In Ecotrust’s line of work, there’s always been a demand for maps that help us to better understand our surroundings and recognize patterns — such as where good salmon habitat or farmland loss occurs — that might not be obvious in the black-and-white text of reports and tables. In our early days, the GIS team at Ecotrust used maps and spatial analysis — that is, exploring patterns on the landscape — to publish Coastal Temperate Rain Forests, the beginning of our survey of the rain forests of home here in the Pacific Northwest. Through that work, we were able to identify British Columbia’s Kitlope Valley as the world’s largest intact temperate rain forest watershed.

We collaborated with the Haisla First Nation, whose traditional territory includes the Kitlope Valley, and our work — maps included — supported the designation of the Kitlope Heritage Conservancy Protected Area (Huchsduwachsdu Nuyem Jees) in 1994. Our 1995 book, The Rainforests of Home: An Atlas of People and Place, painted a bioregional portrait of not just biological importance, but cultural value as well. Through these maps we could distinguish a pattern for the first time: that rain forest loss, watershed condition, and the status of First Nations languages were interrelated. We continue to get requests for the maps and spatial data that supported the atlas.

Map of the lower Columbia Basin showing McGee Creek in-channel and floodplain restoration
Our interactive map of watershed projects allows a regional view of progress.

Maps are a compelling way to tell a story, but we also provided the public with tools to explore data and tell their own stories. The software that we use daily in the GIS department can be expensive, and requires a fair amount of training to work with; we have always felt that the knowledge we have access to should be shared. Since our early years, along with map-making and analysis, the GIS team has acted as a support team, helping tribes and organizations develop their GIS capacity, make conservation decisions, and advocate for their mission.

Today, we continue to explore spatial data and create maps that help to visualize the future we’re working toward. Our maps and analysis can be seen in a recent report by our E3 Network of economists, which shows that more and better jobs can be created by repairing infrastructure instead of building the Keystone XL pipeline (PDF). Our Chief Cartographer and GIS Manager A. Fenix creates beautiful maps of our home, like this one of the major river basins of Oregon, or this one on FSC-certified lands in Oregon and Washington (scroll down).

We also continue our commitment to public access to open data and tools. Using the open source Madrona software framework developed in conjunction with our marine team, we’ve created a variety of free, online tools that anyone can use. Our Juniper Management Tool, created for the BLM, allows users to map dozens of datasets related to eastern Oregon land management. If you have an interest or a stake in juniper management planning — as a local rancher, or a sage-grouse conservation group, for example — you can also explore management scenarios and their relationship to other important values on the land.

We’ll soon be launching the Forest Planner, a tool we’ve developed specifically to support private forest landowners in understanding their options for managing their land. Here landowners can literally draw on map layers we’ve collected, analyzed, and prepared to visualize how long-term management options will affect their forest and their wallet.

Over the next few months we’ll be introducing you to the members our GIS team and the work that each of us does. We are shaping exciting new directions for our spatial work, as we explore this new solar system of the interactive map.