If smart phones, tablets and Global Positioning Systems are on your wish list, you are not alone. These gadgets are proving essential in the efforts to protect native Hawaiian ecosystems.
Accurate mapping has always been crucial to surveying for and controlling invasive species. Back in the mid 1990s, Maui field crews first began finding miconia. Though not very long ago, the technology available then seems pre-historic today. Using altimeters and orienting from known physical landmarks, they would record plant locations by drawing dots on photocopies of topographic maps. These paper maps were filed away for future use. Subsequent visits meant more hand-drawn maps. Sometimes the only way to find a specific locale was to bring along someone who had been there before.
Early attempts to create electronic maps involved scanning topographic maps into a computer and then drawing dots to estimate locations using computer programs intended for design and drafting. There was an electronic record, but it was time consuming to create and not especially accurate.
Brooke Mahnken demonstrates the use of a Global Positioning System-enabled field computer or Toughbook used to record flight lines and plants from a helicopter.
Then along came the GPS, promising a precise reading of position and time anywhere on earth, in any type of weather, provided the receiver had an unobstructed view of four satellites. Early GPS units were expensive and heavy. Accuracy was, well, not all that accurate. That unobstructed view of satellites was often hard to come by given terrain and canopy cover - especially in Maui's dense rain forest, where miconia was spreading. To record a position, field crews carried a pole that they had to piece together and snake up through the overhanging tree limbs. With luck and patience, they could get enough satellites to provide a reading and not lose the antennae in a tangle of branches.
GPS receivers have improved dramatically. Now field crews load maps onto GPS units and follow pre-recorded trails to locate remote populations of invasive plants. Rather than relying solely on the memory of a few people, crews can be dispatched to remove plants even if no one among them has visited the area before. Hand-drawn maps are a thing of the past, transforming an unwieldy stack of maps into a few digital files, making it possible to track work on hundreds of thousands of miconia plants.
Helicopters survey vast areas for invasive plants while flight lines are recorded on GPS units to ensure thorough coverage. Spotters in the aircraft record precise locations of plants so crews can revisit the locations either on the ground or by air. Each helicopter has a GPS-enabled field-rugged laptop loaded with maps to help guide the pilots and spotters.
Even flight following has changed dramatically. Pilots and crew used to have to stop what they were doing and radio in every 20 minutes to let managers know they were safe. Often, terrain blocked radio calls and pilots had to spend valuable time flying to an area where they could make contact. Now flight followers back at headquarters can monitor the helicopter's whereabouts and status using a computer program synchronized with the GPS unit on the aircraft.
Technology has helped to increase efficiency and effectiveness of field crews on Maui and now these tools are in the hands, or pocket, of anyone with a smart phone. While plans are in the pipeline for invasive species reporting apps specific to Hawaii, there are many other options for reporting invasive and rare native species. If you are a cellphone shutterbug, you can easily send photos to email addresses. Just type in an email where you would normally enter a phone number. You can also report online via the reportapest website at reportapest.org.
So next time you see plant or animal that causes you to raise an eyebrow, just snap a photo and send it in and stay posted for future tools to help you learn more about the plants and animals in your backyard.
* Lissa Fox Strohecker is the public relations and education specialist for the Maui Invasive Species Committee. She holds a biological sciences degree from Montana State University. Kia'i Moku, "Guarding the Island," is prepared by the Maui Invasive Species Committee to provide information on protecting the island from invasive plants and animals that can threaten the island's environment, economy and quality of life.