From New Heights: Satellite-Powered Stewardship

By Carolyn duPont on August 2, 2019

A screenshot of Lens
A screenshot of Lens
Lens™ screenshot

Ethan Inlander, Project Director of stewardship for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in California, was facing a challenge: with over 150 conservation easements spread across the entire state, monitoring these properties took up significant time and resources — from stewards driving all across the state to check on remote properties to documenting the monitoring process for Land Trust Alliance compliance.

Ethan Inlander, Project Director at The Nature Conservancy California
Ethan Inlander, Project Director at The Nature Conservancy California
Ethan Inlander, Project Director, TNC California

With the leadership of TNC Systems Architect Katie Andrews, TNC staff had already been working with Upstream Tech to monitor compliance for TNC’s BirdReturns program, which provides compensation to farmers to flood rice fields at certain times of year to provide migratory bird habitat. Monitoring for this program entailed driving to a field at a certain time and sticking a ruler in a rice field to determine if water depth provided sufficient habitat — a process that was constraining TNC’s ability to assess the effectiveness of the program, or to think about scaling. Through our collaboration, we built a platform that uses satellite imagery to detect whether a field was flooded on a given day, down to a couple of inches of water — saving the team many hours of driving time and enabling the geographic expansion of the program.

Together, we wondered: could satellite imagery allow us to monitor all of TNC California’s conservation properties in a scalable, efficient way? In Ethan’s words,

“Our two goals are to improve the efficiency of the monitoring program, and also improve the quality… if you can save a field visit by using satellite imagery, that saves time and money. If you can see things from the imagery that you wouldn’t have seen driving the accessible roads, having a conversation with the landowner, then that adds quality to our monitoring process as well.”

We started to realize that the challenges TNC California was facing were not unique. Many land trusts are managing the tension of wanting to be good stewards of a growing land portfolio within the constraints of a tight budget and limited staff.

This was the origin of Upstream Tech Lens™- a service designed specifically for land trusts and conservation organizations that provides annual high resolution satellite imagery of each property, the ability to compare against past years’ imagery to easily detect potential changes or violations, and a place to record notes and collaborate with team members. The service also compiles and delivers a report of the compliance documentation, providing a record with associated notes, imagery, and additional data from field visits captured by stewardship staff.

In Ethan’s mind, a key issue was the reliability of satellite imagery, as well as access to the “right” data, especially if that involves engaging a commercial satellite provider: “For remote compliance monitoring, the imagery must be from the current calendar year. Google Earth has great imagery, but it’s kind of a black box: we had no idea when they would update their imagery, meaning we couldn’t plan a proactive monitoring process around it… We needed more control of the flow of imagery.” At the same time, Ethan didn’t want the TNC team to have to “call around to various vendors looking for the right high resolution data.”

Ethan's monitoring workstation
Ethan's monitoring workstation
Ethan’s monitoring set-up, with Lens™ integrated with TNC’s property monitoring database

A focus for Upstream Tech has been to address these dual issues of reliability and ease in accessing imagery. Working with our commercial satellite partners, including Planet, Digital Globe, and Airbus, we built a system that allows land trusts to access high resolution imagery and choose the appropriate timeframe for their monitoring needs. And if imagery isn’t captured within that time frame, we can “task” a satellite to capture it.

The TNC team is looking to the future and how this can help their monitoring work. “With remote imagery, we can do one of three things: use remote monitoring for that year, augment our field visit with information gleaned from the imagery, or at least create an archive of imagery that we can use for future years’ monitoring… We’re building a library of satellite imagery for these properties that will be of huge value.”

In Ethan’s mind, the goal is to focus not just on efficiency but also quality. “There’s a level of quality that’s added if you are going to do fieldwork anyway, and can investigate things you saw on the imagery.” But the imagery provided through Lens™ also enables the bigger picture of a portfolio:

“We can view the more rugged parts of the property, where it’s unrealistic or unsafe to drive or hike to. We’re starting to see things we might have missed in the field.”

TNC California has been a great partner and collaborator, and we’re grateful for all the time the team has spent with us building up and honing our Lens™ service — and for the great work they do as conservation leaders and stewards.