More than just polygons
For the past year and a half I have been aggregating protected areas spatial data from a wide range of sources and formatting them to meet a standard framework. The end result is the latest version of Conservation Biology Institute’s (CBI) Protected Areas Database of the United States (PAD-US CBI Edition Version 2). Processing these data into an easy-to-query database is critical for clean analyses about the status of our land and water. Individual protected areas are the foundation of this national database. Most of these can be easily standardized into categories of ownership, management, designation type and conservation status. But there are a small portion of these that are not so easy to standardize because they have multiple owners or some uncommon designation.
|Extraction of California from PAD-US (CBI Edition) Version 2|
This is the part of my job that I enjoy most because it requires that I become a "conservation detective", investigating the stories behind these individual protected areas. For me, some of the most interesting things about protected areas are the people and the legal tools used to set these natural, historical or culturally important places aside as a legacy for future generations.
Not long ago I read "The Big Burn", by Timothy Egan, about the creation of the US Forest Service and designation of many of our current protected areas under the visions of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. Establishing protected areas requires the intersection of individuals, politics, and conservation biology – an exciting mix for an environmental anthropologist like me. I really enjoy digging into the details to learn about the unique ways that protected lands are created in different regions, states, and counties.
All across the country there are unique regional characteristics that contribute to the design, implementation, and management of protected areas. Some of these include the process of establishing conservation easements onto critical open spaces like Tejon Ranch in California's Tehachapi Mountains, converting military reservation into Wildlife Management Areas like Cherokee-Gruber Wildlife Management Area in Oklahoma, and creating public/private partnership to establish new protected areas like Indian River Lagoon Preserve State Park in Florida.
Scientific users require national data standards for protected areas in order to run replicable analyses that stand up to scientific scrutiny. But in reality, protected areas are designed, established and managed by people. That means diversity and complexities occur that are sometimes difficult to represent. Some days, when I am deep into editing seemingly abstract shapes, I have to remind myself that these are unique and special places. They are links to our national heritage and our public backyards. I am proud to be involved with creating a set of data which helps us better understand and manage these places, because I can't imagine a country without them. When I am not sitting behind my computer, I try and get out and visit these extraordinary places so that I can return to my work with a mental reminder that protected areas are more than polygons on a map.