Research question: Master's thesis

Is there an answer to mapping old growth?

An examination of two projects conducted with remote sensing and GIS

Robert A. Norheim

Colorful bar

This thesis is an attempt to understand why two old growth mapping projects, one conducted by Pacific Meridian Resources for the USDA Forest Service, the other conducted by a team of researchers working for The Wilderness Society, came up with very different results. Several different avenues will be explored, including the technical aspects of the projects as well as their institutional and cultural aspects. The underlying principle is the belief that the environment in which the projects were conducted affected the nature of the projects, both at a technical level and a political level. Thus, the projects' outcomes were affected as well, and the differences between the outcomes can be attributed not only to technical but also to institutional factors. This thesis attempts to provide an understanding of the context in which the projects were conducted and the nature of the biases that the institutions lent to the projects. Such an understanding will improve the ability to judge the data for its fitness for use in the debate over old growth forests that continues to this day.


Examining the source of differences between the two projects is important because the issue that they were studying is of national significance. as evidenced by the attention given to the issue by President Clinton early in his presidency. As we have already seen, the issue was a very contentious one. One the one hand, the economic base of many communities and families was at stake (Lee 1990). On the other hand, the survival of not just a species of owl but an entire ecosystem was possibly at stake. The full value of preserving that ecosystem was not known, as it had been barely studied. However, the important cancer-fighting compound taxol had only recently been discovered in the bark of one of its species, the Pacific yew, thus revealing the potential value of other species in the ecosystem to humankind. Thus, the ecosystem had potential value beyond simply a recreational value and "existence value" (Brown 1996). Environmentalists and foresters were arguing over how much (or how little) of the resource was necessary to preserve, but no one had good figures on how much of the resource existed to begin with. These two studies attempted to answer that question so that the important decisions regarding old-growth forests that were being made at the time could be better informed. The results of either project had the potential to affect these decisions. However, that the two studies came up with significantly different answers may have helped to muddy, rather than clarify, the debate. Chrisman (1991) says that "the public is not particularly interested in the details of the process - the final product is what the public sees." However, when the two products differ so much, an understanding of the reasons behind the differences, from both a technical standpoint and an institutional standpoint, may help to lead to the clarification that had been sought.

My training as a practicioner of GIS and remote sensing will allow me to examine the technical aspects of the two projects with an informed and critical viewpoint. However, my training has also led me to the understanding that the technical details of a given project are not independent of the institutional and social context in which the project is conducted. Understanding that context and how it may affect the technical details is as important as understanding the technical details themselves.

Cultural and Institutional Context of GIS

Indeed, the ways in which GIS and the institutional and cultural context in which GIS is practiced affect each other have been receiving more and more attention by many researchers in recent years. Earlier in the history of GIS, attention was rightly focused on the technical details; one could not criticize the field very well when there was not even a working system. However, the twin issues of, first, institutional context and how it shapes the way maps are produced, and second, how maps affect the way we conceive of space, have long been recognized in the field of cartography, and it is now logical to extend this research to GIS. The increased attention the issue is receiving is occurring in many venues, including journal and conference papers (for a start, see the papers: Chrisman 1987; Harley 1989; Chrisman 1992; Goodchild 1992; Lake 1993; Sheppard and Poiker 1995), edited volumes (Pickles 1995) and conferences (Poiker 1993). The social context of GIS is the subject of a new National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis research initiative (NCGIA 1994), and is one of the organizing principles of a new textbook for GIS (Chrisman 1997a). Taylor (1995) suggests that this line of research now be extended to remote sensing as well.

Part of the reason for this increased attention on the social practice of GIS is the increasing role that GIS is playing in many aspects of our society. GIS is becoming big business. As GIS extends its reach into more aspects of our society, its role becomes worthy of further examination and questioning whether the technology can provide the answers we seek. Certainly, the debate over old-growth forests in the Northwest is only one contentious issue that it has been involved in. GIS has also been used in countless siting decisions, both for desirable and undesirable projects; for one set of examples, see Chrisman (1995a). The role of GIS in the Operation Desert Storm and elsewhere in the military has also raised eyebrows (Smith 1992; Pickles 1993), as has the increasing encroachment of geodemographics into our everyday life (Crampton 1995; Goss 1995a, 1995b). In response, other authors call for the ethical application of GIS technology (Chrisman 1992; Crampton 1995; Onsrud 1995).

As has been mentioned, both cultural and institutional contexts can affect GIS. The term cultural context can mean a national or indigenous culture (Campari and Frank 1993; Orlove 1993; Chrisman 1997b); for example, the way European-Americans or native Americans construct and interpret space (Cronon 1983). However, it can also refer to a professional culture (Chrisman 1992, 1995a); for example, the way foresters or ecologists construct and interpret space. Indeed, just as with European-Americans and native Americans, foresters have their own way of looking at forestland, and this is not the same as the way ecologists view it. These differences will manifest themselves in the way the two groups pursue a mapping project. For instance, if asked to map a parcel of land, the traditional forester is likely to focus on the different types of trees on the land and how they form into stands. The ecologist is more likely to look at biological function, perhaps delineating watershed boundaries. Campari and Frank (1993) note that "GIS are [sic] much more flexible than what can be considered a simple tool - a GIS is not a hammer - and aims at the spatial integration of data. It thus hits problems of cultural differences squarely." (p. 11)

Institutions have their own effect on projects, including staffing, budgets, and time-lines. All of these issues obviously directly affect the technical decisions made in pursuing a project. (Chrisman 1992)

The body of research investigating the social conduct of GIS discusses issues such as these and more. This thesis draws upon the principles established by this body of research, and hopes to contribute to it as well. That the topic is relevant to the current research is demonstrated by the fact that it is directly related to a number of specific proposals in the NCGIA Initiative-19 research agenda, including calls for more understanding of the nature of remote sensing systems (Taylor 1995), for investigating access to Forest Service data for use by grassroots organizations (Brooks, Hatley, and Andrew 1995), for investigating the use of GIS in biodiversity planning in the Northwest (Proctor 1995b), for examining the social practice of GIS by comparing projects that have very similar components (Chrisman 1995a, 1995b), and for examining whether better spatial information will help to reduce conflicts (Obermeyer 1995).

Investigating the context of the old growth mapping projects

That the two projects are similar is important. By removing as many variables as possible, the focus can be on the factors that shape the differences between the two (Chrisman 1995a). Similarities between the two projects include intent, dates, and methodology. The projects were both intended to determine the amount of old-growth forest that was standing on National Forest land west of the Cascade crest in Oregon and Washington. They were both conducted during the period 1989-1990 and measured old growth that was standing as of 1988, and both projects used the technology of remote sensing for gathering primary data, and the technology of GIS for analyzing the data. But still they yielded very different results.

The question that is asked in this thesis is: How might the cultural and social institutions in which the two projects were conducted have affected the respective outcomes of the project? Certainly part of the reason for the differing results can be attributed to technology; while the two projects used similar technology, it was certainly not identical. Yet part of the reason the technology was different was the institutional context; the non-profit organization could not afford the computing power that the consulting firm could.

While my technical training has been excellent, I have not been trained as a political scientist or a political ecologist, to use a new term (NCGIA 1994). I do not have the theoretical background to examine the political nature of the organizations through the lens of a particular organizational theory. Yet it is not too difficult to determine from the simple examination that follows that a large federal agency and a non-profit organization are different in very many ways (which is not to say that some similarities will not be evident as well). These differences and similarities will manifest themselves in the way the mapping projects were conducted.

Colorful bar
Last updated: August 28, 1996
Copyright 1996 Robert A. Norheim