The Blue Highways of GIS: Annandale-on-Hudson, New York

The Bard College Field Station is located on the Hudson River near Tivoli South Bay and on the mouth of the Saw Kill. Its location affords research and teaching access to freshwater tidal marshes, swamps and shallows, perennial and intermittent streams, young and old deciduous and coniferous forests, old and mowed fields, and other habitats. A library, herbarium, laboratories, classroom, and offices are open to undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and environmental researchers by prior arrangement. Also based at the field station are laboratories and offices of Hudsonia Ltd., an environmental research institute. The Field Station is owned by the College and operated with support from  Hudsonia and other public and private funding sources.

Founded in 1981, Hudsonia is a not-for-profit institute for research, education, and technical assistance in the environmental sciences. Staff scientists, applying long experience in regional ecology and natural history, collect and analyze data and recommend measures to reduce or mitigate impacts of land development on the local environment. While biological sciences and research is at the foundation of the Hudsonia mission, geospatial technology provides tools which are used extensively throughout its programs.

Leading the GIS mapping efforts with Hudsonia is Gretchen Stevens who has been with the organization for 24 years. Receiving her B.S. in Environmental Conservation from the University of New Hampshire, Gretchen is a botanist and is self-taught in using GIS software with Hudsonia which has standardized on the ESRI platform. She is Director of Hudsonia’s Biodiversity Resources Center and has over 34 years’ experience in remote sensing, habitat assessments, habitat mapping, rare plant surveys, and other field biology in the Northeast. She manages the GIS laboratory at Hudsonia, curates the Bard College Field Station Herbarium, and supervises the Habitat Mapping and Biodiversity Education programs.

Over the past 13 years Gretchen has led and produced a significant amount of GIS work in the lower Hudson River Valley for the benefit  of local governments and organizations which would otherwise have been unable to take advantage of geospatial technology. Of particular focus in her work has been the use of GIS to support detailed mapping of ecologically significant habitats throughout towns in Dutchess and Ulster counties, as well as selected watersheds and stream corridors in Orange County (Trout Brook and Woodbury Creek), Schoharie, Albany, and Greene Counties (Catskill Creek) and Fishkill Creek in Dutchess County.

Hudsonia’s approach to most of their habitat mapping efforts has been similar by combining desktop ArcGIS tools, including the analysis of common data layers such as bedrock and surficial geology data, topography, and soils, with the interpretation of color infrared aerial photography to predict the occurrence of ecologically significant habitats. Gretchen notes:

 “These projects involve lots of detailed, hands-on remote sensing analysis and lots of field work – both of those aspects help to distinguish the final products from most other maps in the public domain. By “hands-on” I mean that we do not rely on mapping software to interpret our spatial data such as geology, topography, soils, and aerial imagery. We visually pore over the spatial data ourselves to arrive at our habitat predictions, and then digitize the boundaries ourselves (click-click-click) onscreen. And then we visit as many areas as possible to answer our questions.”

Illustrative to the high quality of work, many of Hudsonia’s GIS products are incorporated into local master plans, open space plans, and local land use policies. For example, in Dutchess County, the towns of Amenia, Clinton, Hyde Park, Rhinebeck, and Woodstock in Ulster County, have incorporated Hudsonia’s habitat mapping information into local comprehensive plans, zoning ordinances, and/or review procedures for land development projects. Conservation Advisory Councils (CAC) in the towns of Beekman and Rhinebeck have been using Hudsonia’s GIS mapping data and habitat reports to make presentations to Planning Boards about biodiversity concerns associated with proposed projects.

Town of Clinton Significant Habitats

Town of Clinton Significant Habitat Mapping

The Woodstock habitat map, augmented by many other publicaly available geospatial datasets, has enabled the Woodstock Land Conservancy to prepare a Strategic Conservation Plan (completed in 2013) for their service area, which includes Woodstock and neighboring towns. Hudsonia is also helping the Town of Ancram prepare a Natural Resources Conservation Plan which includes a series of 20 GIS maps depicting such elements as bedrock and surficial geology, elevations, farmland soils, aquifers, unusual habitats, and conservation priorities throughout the town.

Ancram Habitat Mapping

Town of Ancram Significant Habitat Mapping

2014 is year three of a five-year collaboration with biologist Jason Tesauro on a project that uses grazing dairy cows to restore habitat for the bog turtle (an Endangered species in New York) at a site in Dutchess County. The project includes the radio tracking of turtles and monitoring the vegetation changes. Hudsonia biologists and interns collect GPS data while tracking turtles and use  ArcGIS Tracking Analyst to create maps showing the movements of each turtle through the tracking season, overlaid on an orthophoto image. Cool stuff.

Smaller_BogTurtleHudsonia_Page_1

Bog Turtle mapping and tracking in Dutchess County

Praise for Hudsonia’s GIS work at the local level is widespread. “The Woodstock Planning Board has adopted the Hudsonia map as our official town map and the planning board uses the map on the big screen at all our meetings so the public can see what issues the planning board is looking at” offers Peter Cross, a member of the Woodstock Planning Board, “I use the Hudsonia biodiversity map all the time as part of my work as the Woodstock Wetlands and Watercourse Inspector.” Across the Hudson River in Rhinebeck, Michael Trimble, current chair of the Town of Rhinebeck Planning Board, and Interim Zoning Enforcement Officer notes “Gretchen and Hudsonia do remarkable work and our area has benefited from their efforts.” Additionally, Cliff Schwark, Chairman of the Town of Beekman CAC replies “My best description of Gretchen Stevens is that she is a true professional in her field, an excellent educator, always helpful and a pleasure to work with. The results of their work were excellent, on time, and at cost and have proven to be valuable to the Town of Beekman.” In the Town of Clinton, Norene Coller comments “We are very fortunate in Dutchess County to have an organization with the knowledge of native species and difficult to observe small habitats as well as GIS capabilities to help communities make important land-use decisions”.

While she and her colleagues at Hudsonia have made presentations on their GIS-based work at venues such as the NYS Wetlands Forum, the Northeast Natural History Conference, and the Association of American Geographers – there has been limited interaction with the larger and existing statewide GIS community. Nonetheless, she remains a dedicated member of the statewide geospatial community who works meticulously with little notoriety beyond the Hudson Valley communities she serves.

Gretchen and her work with Hudsonia illustrates the role of similar nonprofits which fill a geospatial role providing support to conservation agencies and smaller, more rural governments typical of the mid-Hudson River communities where they work, often with organizations with very limited, if any, technical staff and largely being supported through grant funds and private foundations.

Gretchen summarizes  “Our GIS capability has enabled us to gather and analyze huge amounts of physical and biological data, and has greatly advanced our understanding of the Hudson Valley ecological landscape. In addition to expanding our research on the known and likely occurrences of rare plants and animals and their habitats, GIS has allowed us to convey a giant body of information about significant habitats to landowners, land trusts, and municipal and state agencies who can put it right to use in protecting the most sensitive areas.”

Just another person working the smaller venues across the Empire State.   Thinking Globally, Acting Locally.   Number 177 under “S” on the NYS Clearinghouse Who’s Who in GIS Listing by Alphabetical.

Gretchen Stevens and others along the Blue Highways of GIS.

Thanks for reading and see you down the road.

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