Partner Spotlight: How Lens Saves Maryland Environmental Trust Time and Money

By Allegra Wrocklage on September 7, 2021

From the low-lying coastal plains around the Chesapeake Bay to the rolling hills and ridges of Appalachia, Maryland earns its nickname “America in miniature.” The Maryland Environmental Trust (MET), a division of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, conserves and stewards land across these diverse landscapes. This is no small task, especially as state agencies are often faced with limited budget and staff resources.

We spoke with Jon Chapman, MET’s stewardship manager, about the many ways Lens bolsters their agency’s monitoring capacity - from helping them overcome a staffing shortage to supporting data management.

One of MET's land trust partners in the field One of MET’s land trust partners in the field. (photo credit: MET)

Seeking Out Savings

MET partners with land trusts throughout Maryland to hold over 1,000 conservation easements across 22 counties. These easements are further divided into about 1,300 individual land ownerships. While about half of MET’s easements are co-held with local organizations, not all of these partners have the capacity to consistently monitor their holdings. As a result, MET is responsible for monitoring about 80% of the easements in its portfolio. This requires significant staff time and resources for the agency.

“It can take five to six hours to go from the shore to the mountains. We have one office in Crownsville, but we would be doing an awful lot of driving,” said Chapman.

Before using Lens, MET struggled to find a remote monitoring option that offered high-resolution and recent imagery at a rate affordable for a state agency budget. They initially piloted remote monitoring by using aerial imagery taken from planes tasked to fly over their easements in four counties. This proved prohibitively expensive to repeat over larger areas at the resolution they needed.

MET staff member in field A MET staff member on a field visit to record any changes. (photo credit: MET)

Restrictions on travel and in-person meetings in 2020 due to COVID-19 set MET back significantly in their monitoring season. These challenges were compounded by staffing shifts that left Chapman with two fewer people on his stewardship team, depleting their on-the-ground monitoring capacity. In order to make up for lost time, MET needed a remote monitoring option that was affordable, efficient, and could quickly and easily integrate into their monitoring workflow.

“Lens was a wonderful alternative,” said Chapman. MET signed on to use Lens in 2020 and has since renewed for another year.

An Easy Way to Spot Changes

For their first year using Lens, MET chose to remotely monitor only the properties they solely held (rather than also including those they co-held with partners) on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. This totaled 137 properties covering about 26,000 acres, and took five months to complete.

Even though some of MET’s staff had little to no experience with remote monitoring or using satellite imagery, Chapman used Upstream Tech’s Lens support documents to create a checklist of steps to follow and criteria to assess. Coupled with Lens’ design as an accessible online platform (rather than a software that needs to be downloaded), this allowed his team to quickly familiarize themselves with remote monitoring and get started in Lens right away.

Chapman first established four criteria - land use, structures, stream buffers, and overall impressions - that his team of staff and volunteers used to assess each property when reviewing satellite imagery. This framework helped them use Lens to create a baseline understanding of all the properties, even those they had not yet been able to assess in person.

MET then added a few overlays to Lens that were specific to their needs for identifying the presence of structures and stream buffers. The first they added was the Microsoft Building Footprint layer, which helped them determine areas where development has occurred. Their second addition was a layer from the National Hydrography Dataset showing flow lines. This helped them determine where streams were present on properties and if they had sufficient forested stream buffers - an important feature for protecting water quality that MET works to maintain.

An adequate stream buffer An example of an adequate stream buffer is shown in Lens on a large agricultural property near the Chesapeake Bay. A flow line from the National Hydrology Dataset is represented by the blue line, which helps MET staff understand where streams are present. (imagery credit: MET 2019)

An inadequate stream buffer On another location at this same property, MET staff used Lens to spot areas where the shrub and tree buffer on the river appeared inadequate. They used the notes feature to flag the area within the yellow box for further review. (imagery credit: MET 2019)

In order to gauge overall impressions, MET staff used Lens to determine whether each property had changed since it was last monitored or if any potential violations to the easement terms had occurred. Examples of impermissible land use changes they looked for included whether a stream buffer was narrowed or if a new structure or road was added that required MET’s review and approval.

Lens compare mode shows new structures Lens’ compare mode reveals potential new structures. (imagery credit: USDA NAIP 2017 & State of Maryland 2020)

Adding Efficiencies to the Monitoring Workflow

The benefits of Lens were immediately apparent to MET, saving their staff time and money as well as offering creative new ways to organize their monitoring workflow.

For properties that MET staff still needed to visit in person, reviewing remote imagery in Lens allowed them to see the full extent of a property before the field visit and determine where changes may have occurred. This gave them an idea of what to expect on the ground and to pre-plan site visits, helping them more efficiently structure their limited field time.

MET also found Lens to be particularly useful for getting a better sense of the landscape on properties that can’t easily be explored completely on foot. For the first time, MET was able to get a good look at the full extent of some of their wetland properties. This allowed Chapman to pinpoint one property’s water access that he previously wasn’t able to find on the ground. Lens revealed it was located on the far side of the property, off a creek that he didn’t realize connected to the property.

Boathouse and dock A boathouse and dock (denoted by the red square) providing river access are revealed in Lens. The extensive forest and wetlands on the property behind the boathouse show that it might be difficult to access on foot. (imagery credit: MET 2019)

“Lens allows us to see the full extent of properties, versus just what we would normally focus on when meeting up with a landowner or only seeing where the landowner chooses to take us on a drive,” said Chapman.

In evaluating different remote monitoring options, Chapman was particularly interested in finding a tool that would serve MET’s rather specific needs for recording data.

“MET had our database with various fields, and I was interested in figuring out how many of those fields I could collect information about simply by looking at the aerial image,” said Chapman. “For example, land use, or where there are buildings or streams on properties.”

To this end, MET found Lens’ tags function particularly useful to summarize their long list of properties and break them out into different groups for ease of reference.

“For example, I might be trying to figure out how many properties I found that had an issue with buffers. I can generate a spreadsheet of these properties by their tags,” explained Chapman. Lens’ tags are completely customizable. For instance, tags can be created to denote monitoring actions that need to be taken or to detail conditions on each property. Similarly, MET found Lens’ notes feature useful for quickly generating PDF reports that could be linked into their database.

New Opportunities for Restoration and Landowner Engagement

Chapman estimates his staff has been able to save, at minimum, several thousand miles of driving and the associated costs of wear and tear on vehicles. Not only were staff spending less time on the road, they were also using the time they gained back more efficiently as each property could be remotely monitored more quickly with Lens.

These time savings allowed the MET team to quickly catch up on the several months of work that they lost in 2020 when COVID restrictions prevented in person monitoring. This task would have been impossible for MET without the efficiencies that Lens offered.

MET staff member in forest A MET staff member on a monitoring trip. (photo credit: MET)

Beyond monitoring, Chapman has also begun using Lens to target proactive conservation and restoration activities on MET properties.

“Using Lens, I’ve been able to generate a list of properties where we want to do outreach to landowners about enhancing their riparian buffers,” he said.

In the near future MET also hopes to use Lens reports for enhanced landowner engagement. The ability to easily share annotated imagery with landowners could improve transparency and communication about changes on properties.

Overall, the cost and time savings offered by Lens gave MET greater flexibility in carrying out their monitoring work, helping them meet their responsibilities to steward and conserve Maryland’s diverse landscapes.

Interested in learning more about how Lens might work for your organization? We’d like to hear from you! Please send any questions or comments to lens@upstream.tech.

The Maryland Environmental Trust works with landowners, local communities, and citizen land trusts to protect Maryland's most treasured landscapes and natural resources as a legacy for future generations. They accomplish this work by providing direct assistance, information, and innovative tools to ensure the ongoing stewardship and public concern for the natural, historic, and scenic resources of the state. Learn more here.