Room to Roam: Remote Monitoring Grant Program Creates New Opportunities for the Vital Ground Foundation

By Jake Faber on November 15, 2021

Accessible remote monitoring tools have been a transformative approach for land trusts to enhance their critical conservation work. Our partners at the Land Trust Alliance and the Nature Conservancy in California are at the forefront of providing resources on remote monitoring to land trusts. We’re thrilled that they recently announced a second round of their Remote Monitoring Grant Program, providing valuable funding for land trusts to set up their own remote monitoring programs.

To help land trusts learn more about this opportunity we talked with Kali Becher, Land Steward with the Vital Ground Foundation in Montana. In partnership with Kaniksu Land Trust and the Idaho Department of Lands, Vital Ground received funding from the inaugural round of the Remote Monitoring Grant Program. Their project explored a public-private partnership model for using satellite imagery in Upstream Tech’s Lens application to conduct remote monitoring on over 100,000 acres of their overlapping service areas in Idaho and Montana.

Read on to learn more about the project team’s approach to remote monitoring, the benefits Kali has found from using Lens, and advice she has for land trusts interested in applying to the Remote Monitoring Grant Program. Upstream Tech is also hosting an informational session on November 30th for land trusts interested in learning more about Lens. Register here.

vital ground bismark Vital Ground's Bismark Meadows project, where they are protecting wetland habitat for grizzlies and other wildlife in Idaho's remote Selkirk Mountains.

Upstream Tech: What motivated you to apply for a remote monitoring grant?

Kali: Vital Ground is an accredited land trust that conserves land for grizzly bears and other wildlife in the northern Rocky Mountains, and our big motivator was capacity. We have a very large service area, with 2,000 acres of fee title properties and over 20 conservation easements. It can take five hours to drive to a single property, and we even have some multi-day trips. At the same time, we’re starting to do more active land management and restoration work with partners. That can require more on-the-ground time at certain properties.

Safety has also come up as a benefit to monitoring remotely. Spending so much time on the road can be a hazard itself, but once we’re on site we’re often walking around alone in some fairly rugged terrain.

Remote monitoring also allows me to spend more time with landowners. Landowners can’t always join us on site tours, which means we often have to prioritize getting our monitoring done without as much time for in-depth conversations. With satellite imagery as a new resource, I’m able to shift and spend more time discussing the property with landowners.

What were the primary goals you were hoping to accomplish with the support of the grant program, and why did you choose Lens to help you meet these goals?

I wanted to figure out how best to incorporate in-person monitoring with remote monitoring on our conservation easements, and to understand how to most effectively use lower resolution, higher frequency data layers to track projects on easements and fee title properties over time. I also had a broader goal of stretching my capacity, so that I could spend more time on new projects.

Lens was pretty quickly the obvious choice for a few reasons!

First, Lens doesn’t have a minimum acreage for imagery. Some of our properties are quite small and spread out, so we don’t need large images that span the entire landscape but only cover a few areas we’re interested in looking at.

Lens also has a great user interface. We have a lot of partners who don’t have GIS experience and don’t have a lot of time to learn complicated new technology. We needed something that was plug and play.

I also use Lens’ aerial imagery in our baseline documentation, and to check on issues that might come up in the field. And not only does Lens have higher resolution imagery, it also has free higher frequency imagery that allows you to track vegetation, soil moisture, and surface water throughout the season. These are great tools for looking at restoration outcomes like vegetation recovery after a wildfire.

vital grounds fires Vital Ground uses high frequency vegetation data in Lens to track the seasonal growth patterns of trees they planted after a forest fire. (Includes copyrighted material 2019 Upstream Tech and USDA NAIP. All rights reserved.)

How has Lens helped your work? What has it allowed you to do that you couldn’t do before?

Because our properties are often heavily forested and mountainous—or have streams, rivers, and wetlands crossing them—they can be really hard to completely explore on foot. Even just walking the boundary of some of them can be very time consuming. Lens has given us a fuller picture of our properties.

It’s also been useful for sharing information with landowners, who have been really excited to see the imagery of their properties. We have many seasonal residents, and being able to share imagery with them helps them feel like they can stay in touch and know what’s going on with their properties while they’re away.

What are some interesting things you’ve been able to see on your properties using Lens?

Lens has been really handy for picking up on timber harvests. When landowners tell us about a type of harvest they’re planning to do, we can use Lens’ vegetation layer to verify they didn’t clear too much. It is also a useful tool to help focus my site visits, since I know exactly where I need to go in order to see a forest management project that’s taking place.

We recently did some thinning on the community forest property we manage, and are working with partners to do a tree planting project. The imagery in Lens was crucial for us to figure out where open, plantable areas on the property were, and we used the Analyze Area tool to determine how many plantable acres we had. It would have been really time consuming to walk the whole property in order to figure it out.

vital grounds community forest Vital Ground used imagery of their 142 acre community forest property to quickly target where tree planting might be feasible. (Includes copyrighted material 2017 Upstream Tech and USDA NAIP. All rights reserved.)

What advice would you give to land trusts who are interested in applying for the Remote Monitoring Grant program this year?

It’s easy to think about satellite data as very complicated and requiring GIS skills to use. But the Lens platform is very user friendly and makes it very easy. You don’t need to be a GIS or remote sensing expert to be able to use the data. So many land stewards just don’t have the time or capacity to learn new tools, and Lens is a low investment for a high reward in terms of saving time and money.

Read the Nature Conservancy’s remote monitoring reports to inform your application, including those on the work they did with Lens. These are helpful, especially if you’re totally new to remote monitoring, as they provide a great framework for how to design a remote monitoring program. As you’re writing your application, this information helps you frame potential uses for remote monitoring and realistically understand what works and what doesn’t. This will also help you target your specific goals, whether that’s saving on travel costs or staff time spent monitoring on-site.

I would also encourage potential applicants to reach out to the Lens team with questions. I had a lot of support from them, and I didn’t feel like I had to figure things out on my own when I was getting set up in Lens.

Learn more about the Remote Monitoring Grant Program and find out how to apply here. If you’re interested in learning more about Lens for land trusts, reach out to Jake Faber at jake@upstream.tech.