Satellite Mapping for San Mateo Parks


Making a Difference with GIS by Rachelle Hedges

In December of 2010 I left a career in advertising to go back to school for a degree in natural resources management. One of the main reasons for making this change, was that I needed a job in which I could work outside. I love being outside. I love hiking. I love building trails, measuring trees, using tools, and all of the other wonderful things that for the last four years I’ve gotten to do under the guise of “work”. (Including leading two amazing SCA crews!)

So, when I accepted the position of senior GIS intern for San Mateo County Parks, the irony that about 80% of my job would consist of being inside at a computer was certainly not lost on me. Why, then, did I jump at the opportunity to do this job? I did it because I know that GIS is an amazing tool, that I would constantly be learning, and that GIS technology would allow the parks department to manage their lands in the best way possible.

But before I get too carried away talking about how incredible GIS is (which will happen… give it a paragraph or so), it might be a good idea to actually tell you what GIS is (since until about three years ago I had no idea myself). GIS stands for Geographic Information System – a very short name for something that does a lot. As defined by the USGS, “a GIS is a computer system capable of displaying geographically referenced information, that is, data identified according to location. A GIS [also includes] the procedures, operating personnel, and spatial data that go into the system.” Interesting, right? But what does it all mean??

It means that at San Mateo County Parks, we can track threatened and endangered species in our parks like never before – updating maps with information not only about their locations, but also about their quantities, characteristics, and behaviors. We can see how much native riparian area has been lost to invasive species encroachment from year to year, and we can track our how effective restoration efforts in that same area are to ensure our hard work is paying off. We can use infrared imagery to see how much heat a tree is emitting, which can tell us how healthy that tree is (or more importantly, isn’t). And perhaps most importantly, we can share this information clearly and visually through the maps that GIS programs allow us to create. The list of things conservationists can use GIS for is long, and growing longer.

In the five months I’ve worked for San Mateo County Parks, I’ve had the opportunity to do all of the things above, and it truly makes me feel like I’m making a difference as a conservationist. I may not be out on the trail with a McLeod or pick mattock these days, but I’ve come to value my new “indoor” set of tools just as much.

A few weeks from now, I will be lucky enough to share this new tool set with local students when I lead an SCA crew in data collection efforts at one of San Mateo County’s largest parks. It is exciting for me to know that the information we gather will provide much-needed data for the parks department’s GIS geodatabase that can be used for years to come. So even though we may not be building a trail, or tearing out invasive species, the work we do in February will have a lasting legacy in San Mateo County Parks.

USGS source: