CTSP Grantee Stories, Successes and Struggles
The Northern Forest Center: GIS in America's Northeast.
Laura E. Tam, The Northern Forest Center
The Northern Forest is the largest intact forest remaining in the eastern United States. It comprises 26 million acres of forest spanning New York’s Adirondacks, northern Vermont and New Hampshire, and Maine’s North Woods. It contains the headwaters of the major rivers of the northeast and provides a home and livelihood to over one million people. The increasingly global economy has brought dramatic change to the Northern Forest in the last fifteen years, as several large paper companies have sold their mills and millions of acres of land. Many forests are now managed for short-term gains, while forest products employment is declining, and real estate speculation and development has soared. Ecosystem protection, sustainable communities, economic development, and cultural conservation all are needed to increase the vitality of the Northern Forest. Yet, there has not been any organization dedicated to integrating community, economic, and cultural heritage interests across the Northern Forest with traditional land conservation. The Northern Forest Center was established in 1997 to meet this need.
The Center’s mission is to foster and support a strong regional identity for the Northern Forest by sponsoring dialogue about the future of the region, increasing citizen leadership capacity, and integrating economic, cultural, community and environmental work. We have embraced GIS as a critical tool to work towards our mission. The goal of our GIS program is to use spatial information to understand, communicate and advocate the integration of cultural, economic, community, and environmental concerns on a regional scale in the Northern Forest. We believe that geographic information can be an excellent tool to bring people from many sides of the table together, and that innovative ways of representing information, assumptions about the world, and places, can ultimately broaden the scope of people interested in conservation.
The Center seeks to more fully understand the strengths and assets of the Northern Forest and the region’s place in a global economy. A core principle of the Northern Forest Center is that successful long-term conservation must address economy, communities, and cultural heritage as well as ecosystems. We believe in working collaboratively to support and initiate projects that strengthen regional cooperation. The Center is currently researching regional identity through interviews and oral histories, and working to present the cultural heritage of the Northern Forest in a travelling exhibition. We have also undertaken a collaborative regional visioning and indicator-development project called the Northern Forest Wealth Index, which seeks to assess and enhance the economic, social, and environmental wealth of the region. In all three of these projects, maps can play an important role in communicating regional identity and identifying opportunities for steering change towards a brighter future.
Our CTSP grant has added great capacity to the Northern Forest Center and enabled us to convey geographic information about the Northern Forest that we would otherwise not have been able to. It has given us tools and skills to communicate about regional identity, issues, characteristics, and trends in the Northern Forest. Because of the great variety of information we use in our various program areas - culture, community, economy, ecology - each mapping project requires specific kinds of data. We are now able to put together geographic information about the Northern Forest for many of these basic purposes we have, given the breadth and seamlessness of the data we received from ESRI. The experimentation and learning involved in this process has been so useful, we think it has established a good foundation for more complex work in the future.
Our first project was creating a point-based map, "Cultural Resources of the Northern Forest". We used the data included with AV 3.1, as well as some that we geocoded using our own contact addresses. This map was printed and included in a directory we published in February 1999 and distributed to over 1000 people, entitled Cultural Connections: Organizations Working with Culture and Heritage in the Northern Forest. The guide introduces people and institutions across the Northern Forest working in folklife, traditional arts, museums and historical associations, and community development. The map is an essential piece of this guide because it visually represents the context and connections of this work, which is especially useful for people who have never worked across state lines, or thought about the many cultural linkages across the Northern Forest region.
A second project we drafted was a map of existing ‘heritage tours’, or driving loops through scenic and historic areas that other groups in the Northern Forest have put together. We are working to bring these organizations together to consider creating a "Northern Forest Heritage Corridor", which would link up these local projects throughout the region. The corridor would be developed along major routes and would celebrate and educate about the region’s cultural history, while presenting unique economic opportunities for local businesses.
We expect that as we approach our third project – mapping the indicators defined by the Northern Forest Wealth Index - we will have to look for much more complex and recent regional demographic data. We do feel that involvement with CTSP has helped us learn where to look for additional data sources, including the web, the government, and private sources. We are exploring ways to use maps to solicit feedback on the outcomes of the project, and to incorporate public participation in identifying the assets of the Northern Forest. Developing an interactive GIS which would gather public input, both at our Wealth Index workshops and in our travelling exhibition, is an intriguing possibility.
The CTSP grant will continue to impact the Center by enhancing our ability to present information about the region, and using maps as a platform for dialogue about the region’s future. As the region changes, we have to bring a wider range of people into constructive discussions that recognize the interdependence among ecological sustainability, economic vitality, social justness, and cultural richness. We think maps can play a role in bridging gaps between people and organizations working in cultural heritage, environmental conservation, and local community development. We hope to continue and improve our GIS efforts to process and analyze spatial information about the Northern Forest, and use this information in our outreach efforts and the collaborative projects we sponsor.
All text © by the respective organizations, November 15, 1999
Compilation & web design: Charles Convis, ESRI Conservation Program, November 15, 1999