The Environmental Issue
Goals and Objectives

A. The Environmental Issue

The earth is experiencing a mass extinction of species that is unparalleled in its history, with species being lost at perhaps 100 to 1000 times the rates before human dominance of the planet (Vitousek et al. 1997). At least 200 bird and mammal species have gone extinct within the past 200 years. More importantly, the extinction rate of plants and animals is accelerating dramatically as a function of a burgeoning human population and associated degradation or loss of natural habitats. Edward O. Wilson places the current extinction rate for invertebrate species at over 50,000 per year (Wilson, 1989). Jared Diamond estimates that 20-50% of the planet's species will be lost over the next 50 years (Diamond, 1990).

The establishment of large, representative natural reserves is the most viable and cost-effective means of minimizing the rate of species extinctions. The first step is to identify and prioritize the most vulnerable species and ecosystems and then to identify candidate reserve localities that will provide their long-term persistence. This requires ecological inventory and modeling over heterogeneous areas much larger than those traditionally studied by ecologists and wildlife biologists. Installation of an effective reserve network to minimize future loss of biodiversity will require coordinated conservation assessments at international, national, regional and local levels. Such assessments already rely heavily on advanced mapping technologies and computing systems for spatial data analysis and display.

The USGS-Biological Resources Division Gap Analysis Program (GAP) is a nationwide (and potentially international) conservation inventory. The objective of GAP is to map the distribution and management status of plant and animal communities in the United States in order to prioritize conservation needs and to identify areas where new reserves would be especially effective in protecting biological resources at risk. The term "gap analysis" refers to the overlaying of biological distribution data on a map of existing biological reserves to identify gaps in existing reserve systems (Scott et al. 1987), as illustrated in Figure 1. Investigative teams in individual states are compiling moderate-resolution digital maps of vegetation, vertebrate species distributions, and land ownership. These state databases will ultimately be combined to conduct gap analyses within natural ecological regions. A major component of the research that we proposed was in support of the U.S. Gap Analysis Program and related efforts.

Figure 1. Summary of steps in the gap analysis process.

Conservation assessment and reserve siting and design (Figure 2) are now supported by advanced mapping technologies such as satellite remote sensing and machine-assisted image analysis, and by geographic information systems (GIS) for spatial data analysis and display (Davis et al. 1990, Davis and Simonett 1991). However, a number of scientific and technical obstacles currently impede large scale conservation analyses. We are severely limited by the lack of biological inventories, inadequate knowledge of species' habitat requirements, and by immature algorithms for modeling species spatial and temporal dynamics. Progress in conservation assessment and planning is severely and unnecessarily limited by hardware and software for such mapping and spatial analysis. Specifically:

  1. biogeographers and conservation biologists do not have adequate computing resources to analyze the large volumes of data involved in conservation assessments;
  2. data management systems in general use are poorly designed for manipulation of heterogeneous biogeographic data;
  3. there is practically no coupling among database management systems and analytical software used in biodiversity analyses;
  4. it is difficult to visualize biogeographical data sets and model outputs with existing display tools; and
  5. spatial modeling and decision support are constrained by inadequate hardware and cumbersome protocols for conducting sensitivity and error propagation analyses.

Figure 2. Flowchart of regional conservation planning process.

B. Goals and Objectives

The goal of this project was to design and test a prototype Spatial Modeling and Decision Support System for Conservation of Biological Diversity. We are not computer scientists, and it was not our intent to build new spatial database or visualization packages. Nor did we intend to program generic scientific applications for existing software. Instead, our research program was specifically aimed at exploiting IBM hardware and, to the extent possible, existing software, to develop application-specific computational tools for maintenance and analysis of biodiversity databases. Our programming effort focused on building interfaces between existing packages and on developing database functions tailored to the needs of gap analysis and reserve siting. These tools were applied to two specific research problems: a gap analysis of the Intermountain Semi-Desert Ecoregion in nine western states and design of reserve systems for the Southwestern California and the Sierra Nevada regions. The project was closely tied to the USGS-Biological Resources Division's Gap Analysis Program. During the research study, a new opportunity to work within the US Forest Service's Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project allowed us to expand our research on the reserve siting problem into an additional region and planning activity.

Our project objectives were to:

Design and enable a prototype "regional" computing facility for storage, analysis and visualization of biodiversity data.

Program a set of specific software applications to support national (and potentially international) gap analysis.

Conduct a conservation gap analysis of the Intermountain Semi-Desert Ecoregion over nine western states.

Develop applications for monitoring wildlife habitats using multi-temporal satellite imagery.

Develop software to support reserve siting and reserve design and apply it to reserve design in southern California and the Sierra Nevada.

To meet these objectives, the UCSB project embarked on research into several, interrelated components of regional conservation assessment and planning, as illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Framework for a Conservation Spatial Decision Support System.

The research was expected to have direct and immediate impact on the design of information systems for regional conservation assessment. The Gap Analysis Program has very high visibility both nationally and internationally. The research tools developed in this project as well as findings from application of those tools were intended to be of interest to conservation biologists, biogeographers, resource planners and managers, as well as to computer scientists designing next generation DBMS and spatial decision support systems. Many of the application programs were to be made available to other gap analysis projects and related research efforts. Publication of a number of peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters was anticipated from the project. The upgrade in the computing facilities of the Biogeography Lab and creation of a state-of-the-art prototype regional biodiversity center was anticipated to lead to additional opportunities for leveraging the accomplishments from the IBM-ERP gift. Finally, this project was designed to contribute to training and education of a number of graduate and undergraduate students in geography, computer science, and biology at UCSB.

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