Cartography in a Time Machine

In 1915, land surveys were truly a labor of love. Imagine that pioneering forester, climbing up and over the Tetons, recording on muddy linen paper every nook and cranny of topography while trying to differentiate chokecherry from willow at the lake half a mile away. Strapped to his frame pack was a back-breaking load of surveying wares: tripods, sextants, looking-glasses, plumb-bobs, signal mirrors, and a rusty canteen. But hard and thorough work always pays off – nearly 100 years later, the Conservation Research Center is using these dusty old maps to understand changes in forest dynamics over the last century.Today, natural resource mapping is often a game of mouse clicking and number-crunching. Sophisticated satellite imagery does much of the heavy lifting, and cartographers trace contour lines or forest stands with computer algorithms and software toolboxes. We are applying this modern technology to those historical watercolor maps in order to extract a wealth of new information: tree species abundance and distribution, historical prevalence of wildfires, forest age, prior timber harvesting priorities, and more. Baseline data is an elusive creature in natural science, so when it falls into our lap, we can begin to answer some important long-term management questions. What regions have seen a decline in aspen forest? Has potential mule deer habitat shrunk over the last hundred years? Most importantly, how has our environment changed over time? Thanks to cutting-edge digital mapping machinery and the hard work of some old wool-clad foresters, we can piece together a much better picture of Wyoming’s natural history.

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