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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > GIS Computer System

Steve Beckwitt, 46, and his son Eric, 24, are ancient forest preservationists who, out of their small ranch 60 miles from Sacramento, California, are proving what can be done when computers are democratized for citizens uses. Equipped with a tool known as geographic information systems (GIS), now usable through their personal computer, the Beckwitt’s are mapping different layers of information to prove that proposed private timber cutting on federal lands in the Tahoe National Forest would seriously imperil the last remaining ancient forest groves there.

GIS has been around for some twenty years, but it has been very expensive software requiring large mainframe computers. Its use has been by large corporations and government agencies, such as the Census Bureau and the Department of Defense, and, more recently, by state and local governments. Now, as a result of adapting GIS programs for personal computers, the software costs have dropped from as high as $150,000 to a range of $2,500 to $10,000.

The Beckwitts are probably in the forefront of increasing use of GIS by environmental groups and other citizen associations who wish to save habitats, bays, forests and their own communities from damaging, reckless development.

Their first project convinced the U.S. Forest Service to cancel a proposed logging sale until further environmental analysis. Using government data, father and son electronically superimposed logging information and other environmental data on the government’s timber-type maps. “It showed, for the first time, in one picture, what actually happened from clearcutting in the forest since 1860,” said Eric.

The Forest Service’s Julie Ledig, admitted that “we haven’t had the ability to do it at all.” Some would say the Forest Service had the ability but not the desire to produce such graphic maps that are so upsetting to the timber industry.

“The real strength of the GIS technology is the ability to integrate information graphically to get cause-and-effect relationships,” says Nancy Tosta who is a GIS manager for the state of California. Pictures speak louder than words and colorful maps that are easy to read and understand give truth to the saying that information is power.

There appears to be few limits to the layers of data that can be superimposed for relational clarity. Vegetation, wildlife, surface water, ground water, encroachment or destruction data can provide the evidence that challenges policymakers in government and corporate lobbies to defend or concede what they are doing or not doing.

Furthermore, inconsistencies in government policies — as between zoning ordinances, development rights and ecological conditions–can be graphically portrayed. In the coming decade GIS, will become a common tool used by citizens, for a change, and not just the powerholders.

Applying their dedication, own funds and modest support from the Earth Island Institute, the Beckwitts are working on mapping the entire Sierra Nevada forest with the logging, grazing and subdividing of the past 40 years portrayed in a single mosaic. Steve Beckwitt believes the Sierra forest is on the verge of ecological collapse. He told me in a interview that only 10 percent of the country’s forests in the west are still ancient growth.

There is a Nighthawk air service that takes people on an aerial tour to show beyond doubt what Beckwitt describes in his casual, understated manner. The Beckwitts give themselves time to think and work. They are part of no bureaucracy. They are part of the forest where they work to document the need for protective ecological webs that give the ancient forest a chance to recover and survive. Because, as the elder Beckwitt observed, once the logging is exhausted, the subdividers are not far behind to finish off many of these precious lands.

The country will hear more from Steve Beckwitt, a self-described PhD dropout in biophysics from Berkeley, and his son, Eric, who also is working with Soviet ecologists on a project involving the worlds’s largest lake — Lake Baikal. And there will be many more citizens all over the world bringing the computer and GIS into the service of rational and fair decision-making for the people and future generations.