Society for Conservation GIS Newsletter:

History of the Society for Conservation GIS

(Last Updated: 9-15-97)


Early Beginnings

The International Society for Conservation GIS had its earliest beginnings in a 1988 proposal to establish an international conservation computer foundation. This proposal was written by Charles Convis following nearly a decade of work with conservation and research groups worldwide on computer applications for ecology and conservation. Among other things, it called for a new international foundation based on the ideas of appropriate technology, helping conservation groups utilize computers to carry out their mandate without bogging them down with unnecessary new technologies. This program was different in that it's focus was to provide services and support that would enable conservation groups to solve problems for themselves, as opposed to other computer proposals that focussed on building centralized data and equipment centers in Europe and America. The foundation proposal listed the following tasks:

-Coordinate hardware and software donations for conservation NGO's
-Provide technical recommendations and advice
-Report on other computerization projects, and share how they did it.
-Produce and Distribute free conservation software
-Run a computer bulletin board system and electronic mail network to provide advice and support
-Provide technical support by telephone or telex or bulletin board
-Publish a conservation computer newsletter
-Develop a Conservation Computer Corps that would provide volunteer programmer support for member conservation organizations.
-Help establish standards for conservation data interchange and software.
-Report on specific projects in need of donations
-Report on the uses made of prior donations so donors can see their equipment making a difference
-Interview the largest American and European computer companies and distributors. Use a standard data sheet to summarize and quantify expected support, and to use later for a cost-benefit analysis to see if the expected rewards will be worth the cost of harvesting them.

This proposal was submitted to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in January 1998, for funding by the UN and Bilateral AID programs. Funding was not forthcoming by late 1998 so in November, Charles Convis came back to the USA to begin interviewing computer companies to determine their willingness to donate to such a foundation. On Jan. 26th 1989, Charles Convis first met Jack Dangermond, president of the Environmental Systems Research Institute, to describe the proposed foundation and determine ESRI's interest in supporting it. Jack explained that ESRI did not grant funds but that he wanted to find a way to make the foundation happen, and several weeks later offered to work with Charles directly at a personal level to make the foundation program a reality if Charles would take on a formal employee position in the ESRI consulting department. Since this was the best offer from a stack of zero others it was taken. Services-oriented proposals were simply not popular at that time when compared to proposals that built new centers and centralized vast amounts of high-tech equipment and data.

The Beckwitts, The First Special Interest Group

Convis formally came to ESRI in July 1989 after completing a WWF project in Indonesia. His first act in the infant conservation program was a meeting with Mike Hamilton at the James Reserve on July 28th, to talk about computers and GIS in conservation, and Mike's research at the James Reserve. Steve and Eric Beckwitt came to ESRI to interview Jack Dangermond in October, where they met Charles by accident. The very first conservation program donations were made that fall, to the Beckwitts (then with the Sierra Club Ancient Forest task force), and to Peter Morrison (then at the Wilderness Society).

In 1990 the donation program grew to 10 grants, including Zambia, India, Costa Rica, and the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in England. Convis carried out two volunteer GIS support missions in Costa Rica and England, and presented the first conservation program paper at the 1990 ESRI User Conference, entitled " The Case For Small-Scale Gis Software In Developing Countries".

In 1991 the conservation support program was finally launched as a formal activity, with it's own conference and program. The very first conservation track was offered at the ESRI User Conference, consisting of 10 papers and 6 conservation scholarships for the speakers, and opened with a welcoming ceremony by the Agua Caliente Birdsinger Dancers to let conservation attendees understand the native cultural setting of the area in addition to it's biological setting. As explained in the conference paper: "As Conservation workers, we are all involved in protecting pieces of the earth we call home. It is appropriate therefore that we be welcomed to Palm Springs by the people whose home this has been since time immemorial, the Aquas Calientes. The Birdsinger Dancers will do a short, informal dance that tells part of the tribe's history, and we will have the chance to talk to them about local conservation issues." The conference also saw first open meeting for what was then called The " ESRI CONSERVATION USERS SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP". The original announcement (Website) describing this group still serves as the basic summary of all that the program represents and aspires to.

Early Days at the James Reserve

1991 was the first year Mike Hamilton provided accommodations at the James reserve for all of the conservation attendees, which was the sole reason many of them could afford to attend. Many of these folks gathered at the Convis home for a potluck on Sunday, May 19, 1991, one day before the main ESRI conference. Although only about 10 stayed on at the James, the first meeting of what would become the Society happened at the Reserve that Wednesday at the first "Conservation Potluck" which attracted another 15 conference participants. This potluck was a chance for the conservation GIS attendees at the ESRI conference to get away from the heat and urbanity of Palm Springs into a natural setting, in order to get to know one another better. Shaw Thacher wrote the following article describing his experiences that week:

"ESRI's sponsorship of conservation programs worldwide was showcased for the first time at the conference… My lodging was arranged by Charles Convis who was undoubtedly the conference's conservation 'Maestro, Orchestrator and Guru.' I was placed with a large and motley handful of conservation participants at James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve located SWW of Palm Springs. Michael Hamilton, the Reserve's Director, had offered his research center's empty bunk beds for the ESRI conservation groups, or rather, for those whose organizations could not afford Palm Springs. At the lodge itself Michael Flaxman and his wife (who put together the multi-media display of the reserve's resources with M. Hamilton) greeted weary travellers arriving from Costa Rica, Brazil, Botswana, Northern California and New York City. They explained that we were the only current residents except for two University of California owl researchers who might trudge outside at three or four in the morning. This setting was, needless to say, idyllic. I was more than happy to chauffeur the conservation 'others' to and from Palm Springs and nighttime temperatures dropped to comfortable low forties, contributing to the length of our late evening discussions. Of the many conservation participants I met five also stayed on for training: Michael Junkov, a danish forester and Aleida Perez with IUCN/ORCA - Costa Rica; Sergio Mauro Santos Filho of Brazil's CEDI (Ecumenical Center for Documentation and Information which defends the rights of indigenous peoples); Tahareni Bwana of the Kenya Wildlife Service and Paul Sheller of the Kalahari Conservation Society of Botswana (accompanying article). We moved our sleeping bags from James Reserve into the Convis' backyard and set up desert cots beneath the stars. Three days before Paul Sheller departed I offered the Kalahari Conservation Society (KCS) whatever services I might provide… A unique human resource that became available for KCS as Paul attended the conference came from Dutchess County, New York. Roberta Pickert, who in her words had been 'mother and midwife' to Dutchess County's GIS offered Paul her services to clean and build the dozen or more maps that ESRI had scanned for him; on Her Own Time! This was certainly a generous offer" "…Through my involvement at the User's Conference and subsequent training I developed a strong sense of ESRI's vital role with conservation groups worldwide. At the Conference the Conservation Users Special Interest Group was formally announced, consisting of local and international conservation organizations, GIS hardware and software manufacturers, large GIS users interested in supporting conservation programs, and donor foundations. This SIG has developed to support the acquisition and education of GIS tools and methods by conservation groups. My current role with KCS has evolved within the philosophy of the SIG. While ESRI initiated the 'software' sponsorship of KCS, it has been matched with hardware and human resource contributions, i.e., Roberta Pickett in Dutchess county. Each element is crucial yet the software, hardware and training would normally not be available, affordable or accessible for small underfunded conservation organizations. The role of worldwide conservation organizations are crucial, serving the interests of present and future generations through sustainable development."

In 1992 the "Conservation SIG" became the ESRI Conservation Program and was adopted as a formal ESRI program. The program had grown to over 60 organizations by this time, with a dozen beginning to have significant effect, such as Steve and Eric Beckwitt's presentation of Ancient Forest GIS maps to congress that year, and the first joint ESRI-Hewlett Packard computer grant to the Hoopa Tribe.

At the 1992 ESRI Conference, the conservation track grew to 40 papers and close to 100 participants, and included the first Native American sessions in reflection of the first ECP tribal grants that year. The first ever Conservation Booth, based on ESRI's presentations at the Rio Earth Summit that year, was set up and run by Charles Convis and Shaw Thacher, and the Aqua Cliente Birdsinger welcoming ceremony attracted nearly 300 conference participants interested in the program. The James Reserve saw almost 20 residents and nearly 40 showed up for the Wednesday night "Conservation Potluck". The following is taken from the first ECP status report, published in the conference Arcnews:

" I am happy to report that the Conservation Program continues to be well supported by ESRI, and is in it's second year now. I have worked on over 50 GIS donations so far, and HP is becoming more and more interested along with Sun in helping out with workstation donations. Shaw Thacher and I are also talking with Dell about their interests in possible PC donations. Folks here at ESRI are also looking into an idea that may someday help some of you with travel. Like many businesses, ESRI employees accumulate frequent-flyer miles during business travel, and we think it might be possible to have excess miles donated to others to help send people here for scholarship training, or send conservation volunteers abroad to do on-site training. This is just an idea right now but one I would encourage all of you to pursue with any of your local supporters who do a lot of business travel or local airlines."

"I am pleased to see how many of the groups who started in GIS with donations last year are really coming into their own, building an impressive track record of accomplishments. Some of you are conducting briefings for congress and local officials using your GIS, others have gained enough expertise that you have begun reaching out to teach other conservation groups in your area. Many local battles have been joined and some even won, but we all have so much still ahead of us. It is more important than ever to stand by each other and look for ways that we can support each other's efforts. I think that GIS, where appropriately applied, is a very powerful tool that can help us fight on more equal terms with the various forces bent on demolishing our home planet. I share Thomas Jefferson's skepticism about the ability of governments or large institutions to do anything effective, in our case about population control, deforestation, biodiversity loss, global warming, etc. etc. etc. I assume that real change comes from individual citizens who decide to do something about the big problems they face, and who join together and empower themselves so those big problems don't seem so big any more."

"As many of you begin to collect information about your local environments and resources and build your GIS databases, you will eventually start to ask questions of your data, trying to get at the truth of what is going on in your ecosystems and what really needs to be done. I am concerned that there is not enough theoretical guidance for us in how to analyze environmental data to produce verifiable and defendable recommendations. I think a lot of this guidance will come from the relatively new field of Conservation Biology, and I am happy to note that some of the major figures in this field, such as Paul Ehrlich, Michael Soule, and Dennis Murphy, are beginning to become involved in our Conservation Program. I would like to start a dialog about this issue at this year's ESRI User Conference, beginning with our informal welcoming lunch on Tuesday, June 9."

1993: The First Organizing Meeting

By 1993 the ESRI Conservation Program had conducted over 600 donations and had grown to over 150 organizations. It was the first year that the ECP conducted a GIS-Biodiversity mission in it's own right, working for the World Wildlife Fund to support a national Biodiversity Planning Effort for newly-independent Bulgaria: "We worked with three scientists to train them in ArcInfo and digitize in some 52 maps they had brought representing the work of nearly 30 Bulgarian scientists. We then returned to Bulgaria for a national workshop to develop a national conservation plan. I was pleased to see that with only a couple of weeks training in ArcInfo and ArcView, the three scientists conducted all of the GIS presentations by themselves, showing analyses and responding directly to questions from the floor using live data. Remember, they had never worked with a GIS prior to 3 weeks before. This entire project is based on PC-technology and continues to thrive. As if there were any doubt, I think this proves that GIS and ArcInfo can be an appropriate technology at the local level, but only if the end users are put in the forefront right from the very beginning. The hardest thing as a teacher is to let people work out problems and make mistakes for themselves, but it is the only way to achieve learning which is permanent instead of learning by rote.

The Conservation Track at the ESRI conference grew to 80 papers and over 200 participants, with numerous joint sessions focussing on the integration of conservation practice and activism in forestry, fire, education and resources management. The following announcement drew over 100 people interested in forming an independent conservation GIS nonprofit: "Speaking of doing it yourself, the Conservation program has grown well beyond my ability to manage it well, and so this year I am encouraging all of you to start thinking about how to develop an independent organizational structure, maybe a non-profit association. Marshall Mayer of Desktop Assistance has kindly offered to host a meeting Tuesday Night to discuss forming yourselves into a national or international consortium, for the purposes of applying for grant funding and for forming partnerships for collaborative work projects." I think this was the first meeting where we began to get a sense of who we were as a community, and as I later described to Jack Dangermond: " ..What made it significant was the intensity of interest in forming an association, the level of maturity a lot of people had, and the breadth of offerings that people were willing to bring. I also gained for the first time an immediate sense of my own influence in all this, and sensed for the first time the capability that lay just under the surface, simply waiting for the right chance to gel into an international entity. I described the different tasks that I thought were important in helping us to understand who we were and got a lot of qualified people willing to volunteer time to make it happen. We also discussed the issue of how were we to govern ourselves, how we could organize ourselves so that we posessed the power of a centralized organization without sacrificing the bottom-up nature that we all believe in. We don't want to make the same mistakes as the big NGO's who get so wrapped up in personality that they forget how to step aside to empower local people, but neither do we want to ignore the utility that a leader, trusted by all to represent their views, can have in uniting many divergent interests and skills into a common direction."

Attracting almost 50 people, the immediate fruit of that meeting was the Conservation GIS Consortium, joining Marshall Mayer's Desktop Assistance group with Interrain Pacific's Ed Backus, and Steve Beckwitt and Peter Morrison of the Sierra Biodiversity Institute into a coalition funded in 1994 to provide GIS services to the conservation community, and later to become instrumental in managing and administering several important GIS donation programs including ESRI's. The CGISC wasn't, however, the kind of grass-roots society that many at that meeting had envisioned, so the quest continued. This meeting also marked the beginning of the CONSGIS internet discussion group, thanks to support from Dr. Peter August and the University of Maryland.

1994: The First James Meeting

In 1994, with Shaw Thacher's help, we organized the following special call for the first formal Conservation GIS conference at the James Reserve. This call was sent out to 150 folks requesting volunteer help and broke the conservation conference out into specific scheduled discussions and tasks for the first time: "The Conservation users are organizing a special user's group meeting on Saturday and Sunday, May 21-22. This meeting will be at the James Nature Reserve near Palm Springs and is free and open to all… The purpose of this meeting is to get a better sense of who we are as a general community of computer users and how we are united by use of common tools like GIS, computers, natural selection and a commitment to conservation ideals. We would like to explore other ways to organize and coordinate our mutual efforts so that we can become more efficient in our work and more effective in obtaining the sorts of support we need such as equipment and training. This will be an informal meeting, with the following loose agenda: The agenda is structured with the assumption that people will be arriving all day Saturday, so the Saturday meetings are more independent. The general meeting is set for Sunday, when it is hoped all attendees will be available. Saturday May 21: Preparation and Focus Group discussions 9-1 Hike/Lunch into the James Reserve for hands-on natural history 1-3 Focus Group Discussions on areas of potential interest to the group at large, including but not limited to: General Issues 1. Communications, Newsletter, Internet (CONSGIS) 2. Donations: patterns & successes, loaner programs 3. Volunteers: how to better organize and assign them? 4. Organizing: how to structure collaborative efforts 5. Conservation Database Sharing: Standards? Specific Interest Areas 6. Use of maps in Legislative Settings 7. National Biological Survey/NPS Mapping Project 8. Conservation/GIS users network database 9. K-12 Curriculum Development Projects 10. Other specific user projects such as Pacific GIS, Wildlands Project, WILD, etc. 3-5 Report of Focus Groups and setting an agenda for Sunday

Sunday May 22: General Meeting 6-8 Birdwatching 9-10 Hike into the James Reserve 10-12 Introductions: Go around the circle so we can each tell our story, 5-10 minutes each. 1-5 General Meeting to discuss group issues 5-7 Potluck dinner

We expected around 30 to 40 people to show up, and about 70 made it to the Sunday general meeting, where we had our first group photo, and discussed a wide range of needs and issues that we wanted to work on as a community.

1995: CTSP and the Conservation GIS Consortium

1995 was a watershed year as the ECP passed 1000 organizations in 60 countries, and was instrumental in the launch of the Conservation Technology Support Program, a collaborative hardware and software granting program between ESRI, Hewlett-Packard, Smithsonian and 5 other hardware and software vendors. We gave away over a million dollars worth of equipment and training that year conservation groups seeking to get started in GIS. A tribal grant program was launched with the Intertribal GIS Council which gave away 50 grants per year to US and Canadian tribal groups. 1995 also saw the beginning of the first ECP software development effort, the "Conservation Data Manager", which applied a uniform data model and set of tools to the management of a wide variety of scientific and spatial data. 1995 was the first year we began analyzing grant results to study the reasons why some worked and some didn't. The following lists the basic grant categories outlined in these studies and the number of grants in each: Wildlife Protection (80), Forest Planning (80), Sustainable Development (200), Traditional Tribal Groups (20), National Park Planning (30), Cultural Resources (10), Pollution Monitoring (50), River Protection (15), Environmental Education (80), Habitat Restoration (30), Biodiversity Planning (20), Greenbelts (10), Protection of Indigenous Rights (20).

The Conservation track at the ESRI User Conference had grown to include 80 presentations and conference scholarships were issued to over 200 conservation attendees. The James Reserve reached it's capacity of 50 guests for the first time, and the Wednesday night "Conservation Potluck" drew over 100 guests.

The James Conference returned to an informal effort in order to try to develop a smaller Sunday meeting of senior conservation GIS folks to try to draft a foundation proposal for a national conservation consortium, which we hoped to be able to talk about with the general attendees by the end of the day, but in fact all of the attendees present joined us in the discussion as we sat in a big circle on the grass behind the bunkhouse. At the time Convis was concerned about the lack of grass-roots focus appearing in the new CTSP program and hoped to use the resources and interest it was developing as a lever to galvanize the formation of a national conservation GIS nonprofit that would advise and manage such grants to ensure that they were adequately responsive to the needs of grass-roots organizations. As the James Conference Announcement stated that year: " We are now trying to decide how to manage this (CTSP) program for next year….I would like to push for the program to be governed directly from the conservation-GIS community itself at a grass-roots level. I would like for us to consider forming a national board with perhaps 10 regional and sectoral partners, and even additional local partners, who would meet once a year to establish and approve the donation program for that year, including guidelines for applicants, application materials, and a program implementation plan with all application and review schedules and milestones. Each member group would have a specific region they work with, with a few groups who may handle a specific discipline but on a national basis. The board could also act to help support, develop or approve new training courses in conservation and GIS. This board would then appoint or contract to one organization to administer the program for the year, with some sort of communications and decision-making network established to allow the board to resolve day-to-day management issues outside the scope of what it would permit the administering organization. This board would be voluntary, but we may be able to secure funding to cover travel costs and even direct adminstrative staff. To help promote this idea of a democratically-governed grants program that still retains a strong centralized adminstration we could use endorsement letters from any of you who care to write them. I of course expect you to send thank-you letters to the different co-sponsors once the final hardware grants are decided, but this is different. I am asking for thank-you and endorsement letters for the grants program as a whole, and supporting the idea of an ongoing national program of the type outlined above. If you are not sure what to say about that, it would be equally useful to have endorsement letters about the ESRI program since it's been going for 6 years now. This needs to be on your letterhead and faxed to me, and I hope you'll have time to write an honest evaluation of where you are, how you feel about your current effectiveness, what role if any you feel we played in your getting there, where you think you would be if we hadn't been here to help you, what mistakes you made, etc. We will present these as part of the proposal to HP and the other vendors for the expansion of the Conservation Technology Support Program"

1996: The Conservation GIS Alliance

1996 saw the second year of the CTSP program under it's original management, but the seeds of the idea that it could be managed from within the conservation GIS community itself had been planted and would bear fruit in 1997 when HP and Apple agreed to let the Conservation GIS Consortium formally take over the management and administration of the program, with help from ESRI. The "Conservation Data Manager" was released as a CD-ROM given out free to nearly 100 conference participants. Tutorials and Seminars on the "History of Conservation GIS" and "GIS for the Natural Sciences" were developed and first taught that year. The James Reserve saw it's first CTSP training classes, and on Sunday yet another attempt to organize ourselves into a functioning national organization. Thanks to leadership and help from Roberta Pickert, Sandra Coveny, Kai Snyder and others we gathered around the picnic tables under the tin roof and decided finally on a name for ourselves: The Conservation GIS Alliance. We developed formal assignments and duties for a proposed 1997 formal conservation conference, and a host of other initiatives and tasks. Among the most difficult was a transportation grants program that would try to find airline passes for 50 conservation activists and scientists from developing countries, chaired by Bette Loiselle of Missouri Botanic Garden. Sandra Coveny served as informal coordinator as the following committees set out to create our first formal conference:
-List and survey of conservation GIS people: Pat Kelly
-Conference Papers and Speakers: Sandra Coveny, Charles Convis
-Conference Scholarships: CGISC
-Project Sharing Forum: Peter Morrison
-Conference Organizing: Michael Hamilton, Peter Kiriakos, Roberta Pickert, Susan Snetsinger, Sandra Coveny, Bill Bushing and Will Allen.
-Conference logistics & rides: Kai Snyder
-Vendor Committee: Sara Moola, Will Allen
-Conservation Program Booth at ESRI Conference: Charles Convis

1997: Birth of the International Society for Conservation GIS

1997 finally saw the birth of the International Society for Conservation GIS as a formal, organized entity. Even with plenty of mistakes and last-minute emergencies, the conference was extremely successful, attracting nearly 100 participants to a series of 16 authoritative and scientific papers on a wide range of conservation GIS topics ranging from reserve management to public access to GIS in the courtroom. There was a poster session, the Sunday night campfire, and in the general meeting on Sunday Afternoon the formal group agreement to become a non-profit organization with the election then and there of an interim board of directors and committee chairs covering the following areas:
- Draft incorporation papers and bylaws
- Organize 1998 conference
- Investigate fundraising and funding partnerships
- Develop internal communications for members and the board
- Develop support and subsidy programs for international colleagues
- Develop web site
- Develop program for peer review of conservation GIS research
- Develop Society standards for conservation GIS research and products
- Develop Data Access lobbying program to improve availability of GIS data

With the move to San Diego, the CTSP program training was relocated to San Diego, but will be re-united with the SCGIS annual conference in the future. The new San Diego site also allowed the ESRI Conservation Program booth to expand to 5 times it's previous size, and thanks to support from the SCGIS it offered for the first time an ongoing series of nearly 40 short talks and demonstrations on National Parks, Taxonomy, and a host of other conservation science topics. The conservation program web site was officially unveiled at that conference, listing many of the nearly 3000 grant recipients involved in the program by that time and providing feature stories and seminars on a number of topics.


Text, Compilation & web design: Charles Convis, ESRI Conservation Program, July 22, 1997

ESRI Conservation Program Home * ECP E-Mail (ecp@esri.com)



Copyright © Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc.
Send your comments to: webmaster@esri.com
ESRI Web Site Privacy Policy
July 18, 2000