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In Preserves, Nature & Technology Work Together To Improve Experience


Being in nature gives people an excuse to unplug and connect with the world around them. But here in Northeast Indiana, technology is starting to play a bigger role in maintaining and preserving natural resources and wildlife.

Before entering a preserve for a hike, ACRES Land Trust director of land management Casey Jones pulls out his iPhone and opens an app, called ArcGIS Collector by Esri.

“You’ll notice all of these green lines; they look like transects, all the way across our property,” says Jones. “So we’ve run transects like a grid through this whole section.”

The green lines in the app look like veins. This allows Jones to view previously unmapped ACRES properties as if he were viewing an overhead image of a major city with parallel and perpendicular roads.

The app creates an intriguing nature/machine partnership -- something Jones has embraced -- allowing for greater knowledge and information about how to better preserve our natural world.

“I could choose what I’m doing; if I’m trying to mark a new trail system, if I’m just surveying a property, or if I’m doing a series of pesticide applications,” he says.

ACRES preserves natural land in Northeast Indiana, as well as parts of Michigan and Ohio. In Allen County alone, ACRES manages 23 different preserves with 1,100 acres of land between them.

Having this app at his disposal allows Jones to manage the land and species within their properties better. And while Collector has been largely beneficial to Jones and ACRES in mapping their properties, it can also be used to document work progress.

“The other information you’re entering is the amount of herbicide that is used, the time you start and stopped; we also record weather conditions and the target species that we’re going after,” he says.

Collector was a critical asset in pinpointing the location of the invasive Japanese stiltgrass that ACRES is actively trying to eradicate, and allowed tracking of how much herbicide has been used against it.

But like any piece of technology we use every day, Collector has its drawbacks.

“It’s ran on a battery, so the battery will drain,” he says. “Fortunately, GPS doesn’t use a whole lot of battery, so we can get a little bit more life out of it.”

And, of course, walking around under trees in the middle of nature decreases cell service, which in turn makes streaming maps and logging info more challenging. But Jones has a solution to this problem.

“It’s called a Garmin GLO device, which increases the accuracy of our GPS location,” he says. “So whereas before we could get within about 30 feet if you had a good signal -- which most of the time under the canopy, we don’t -- this will get us down to sometimes within two feet.”

He also notes that if conditions are dreadful -- say, if you’re in a deep valley with terrible weather under a dense tree canopy -- the Garmin GLO won’t help much. He says this is still important, because it provides more clarity on where to draw trail boundaries.

These advancements in technology have resulted in workflow improvement around ACRES preserves, and also decreases the amount of equipment needed when going out onto a trail.

“Before, we were using handheld GPS units, which are a little bit more bulky than your typical smartphone,” Jones says. “Not only that, but then you’re carrying two devices around, because you always have your smartphone on you anyways. Even though the screen is locked, it’s still recording our location as we hike.”

With these advancements comes the question of whether or not this new reliance on technology in the field takes away from the experience of the “natural” world.

Bob Autio is a research geologist for the Indiana Geological Survey, and works closely with tools like Collector and a wide range of other apps. He says the benefits of what we can learn from new technologies outweigh many of the negatives.

“If you even want to understand something about the natural world, I think this technology would help you do that,” says Autio. “So if you want to see rainfall that came through and what happened to groundwater levels, you would be able to do that.”

Autio says these advancements can actually work to get us closer to nature.

“It would allow for an even more in-depth appreciation of nature, as opposed to being some sort of screen that’s blocking you from appreciating it.”

Jones encourages visitors to stay off their phones as much as possible to fully experience nature, but his intricate maps may soon become an effective tool for ACRES trail visitors.

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