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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Channeling Rothrock's spirit

What do satellites, smartphones, crowdsourcing have to do with forests, and someone who was born 174 years ago?

More than you might think.

Source: PA DCNR
Today marks the 174th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Trimbel Rothrock, who became known as the Father of Forestry in Pennsylvania. Out of a tremendous wave of deforestation that swept over millions of acres in Pennsylvania to fuel the early days of the Industrial Revolution, Rothrock helped to amass Pennsylvania’s public forest system and created an academy to train foresters in the science of conservation. 

Today, on Rothrock's birthday, forest conservation has never been more imperiled.

Globally, we are doing a cruelly efficient job of deforestation, cutting out the lungs of the planet and self-inflicting enormous damage on ourselves, and on wildlife, economies, water quality and quantity, and more.

In the forests of Pennsylvania that Rothrock so loved - already threatened by climate disruption and invasive species – history is repeating itself.  An enormous new stressor – shale gas development – further threatens the ecological integrity of the forest and the state’s economy. It could result in clearing a significant portion of the Keystone State’s public and private forests, the impacts of which will be out of proportion to its size.     

The threats to forests far and near today are similar in nature and in history, if different in scale. The challenges are so big that an effective response requires new ways of thinking, and new ways of acting – something that Rothrock seemed to grasp in his day.  At Rothrock’s funeral in 1922, then Governor Gifford Pinchot said:

Dr. Rothrock was always a pioneer. He was one of the few men of his generation whose thoughts customarily went before his contemporaries, and laid the ground for great advance in the commonwealth he loved so well. At every turn in the story of his uniquely useful life, we find things done that no one has done before.

Rothrock’s spirit was, perhaps not coincidentally, channeled today by the World Resources Institute in their unveiling of Global Forest Watch 2.0 – an ingenious new way of thinking, and a new 21st Century tool aimed at curbing disastrous global deforestation.

The tools needed to respond to deforestation include real-time (or as close to it as possible) data, to know what is happening.  It requires an application of conservation science, and a commitment to action. GFW2.0 seeks to synergistically use satellite and remote sensing technology, cloud computing, high speed internet connectivity, the ubiquitous smartphone, and crowdsourcing. These tools will form a network to provide almost-real-time monitoring data on illegal forest clearing activities – a transparent network that will, it is hoped, enable companies, governments, NGOs, the media - and people - to respond.

Will GFW2.0 be effective for its intended purpose, given the swirl of other economic, political, and social factors that contribute to global deforestation? Could it also be useful monitoring and managing the impacts of resource extraction in forests here – in preventing deforestation on a smaller scale? Could it provide a tool for regulators, public land managers, forest advocates, and responsible companies in extractive industries and gas transmission to plan smarter, regulate better, and behave better? Could it help connect people in new ways to the natural resources on which all life depends?

To best answer these questions - and to do things that no one has done before - will require a healthy infusion of Rothrock’s passionate, pioneering spirit.

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