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December 2001 / January 2002 Cover

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Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Photo by Steve Sader

Seeing the Forest for the Trees
UMaine researcher works with NASA to help save Central American rainforests

About the Photo: "Deforestation can only be understood holistically, with its links to economic,
social, political and environmental forces operating at regional and international
levels." Steve Sader

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Steve Sader knows the importance of seeing the forest for the trees. The "big picture" of the world's forests shows their connectedness and health and the effect that human actions are having on them.

From Sader's perspective, forests are inextricably linked to political, economic, social and environmental issues around the globe.

"It is well documented in the literature that through tropical deforestation, we're losing plants and animals that are important to the world. We all can be affected by deforestation, habitat reduction and subsequent environmental deterioration in ways that we don't usually think about. Even civil wars can happen because of political unrest and economic instability that is directly linked to resource depletion and lack of rural development alternatives."

For almost 25 years, Sader has monitored the condition and extent of temperate forests in the United States and tropical forests in Central America using data collected by remote sensing satellites space-age technology that provides researchers with detailed pictures of large land areas by recording reflected light, heat and microwave signals. Sader, director of the Maine Image Analysis Laboratory at The University of Maine, and his students translate the computerized data into color-coded maps of the Earth, detailing land use, vegetation, habitat diversity, and forest type, density and canopy structure.

Views provided from Earth's orbiting satellites have many down-to-earth applications better management of natural resources, heightened public awareness about the environment, and development of conservation policies and strategies. They also can be used to contribute to greater understanding of global climate change.

"Whether talking about the Maine woods or the Central American rainforests, it's important that a sustainable production of goods and services be maintained through time," says Sader.

A UMaine professor of forest resources, Sader has been conducting remote sensing research in Central America since 1978 and in Maine since joining the University's Department of Forest Management in 1987. Much of his work throughout his career has been in cooperation with NASA's Office of Earth Science, which is doing remote sensing all over the world in an effort to understand the effects of natural and human changes on the global environment.

NASA is particularly interested in Central America because it is a region for which, until recently, there was little regional inventory or monitoring of the natural resource base. Central America has some of the closest tropical forests to the United States.

"As a region, Central America continues to have one the highest deforestation rates in the world," says Sader, formerly a NASA research forester responsible for temperate and tropical forest research projects conducted at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. "It is not that the Central American forest constitutes a big area (say, compared to the Brazilian Amazon) but that the region is losing forests at a rapid rate around 1.5 percent annually for the past two decades, mostly due to population pressure and lack of alternatives for poor people who clear forests."

Currently, Sader is the principal investigator on a $1 million, three-year contract with NASA to create regional satellite databases to monitor forest condition and environmental change throughout Central America. UMaine has been working with Conservation International and NASA research laboratories to look at land use change in Central America's Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a chain of protected and proposed conservation areas linking natural habitats from the borders of northern Colombia to southern Mexico.

In 1998, NASA signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Central American Commission on the Environment and Development supporting research cooperation focused on monitoring the biological corridor. As part of the cooperation, NASA is developing the region's first detailed land-use maps using satellite data.

Creation of the corridor is a "political ideal" based on the premise that conservation of forest cover equates to protection of soils, biodiversity and habitat, Sader says. Although this is an important goal, the reality is its success depends on the stakeholders primarily the poor who live on or near these areas.

"If people don't have economically viable alternatives to deforestation for their sustainability, the best laid plans of the government will fail to achieve this goal," Sader says. "That's why deforestation can only be understood holistically, with its links to economic, social, political and environmental forces on regional and international levels."

Now in the third year of the project, Sader and a team of international researchers are developing large regional databases and natural resource maps to create an environmental data information system. In addition, Central Americans are trained to process and use the data and remote sensing technology, and become research cooperators.

On campus, the Maine Image Analysis Lab, designated a National Center of Excellence in Remote Sensing Applications by NASA, is now analyzing new satellite data from throughout the region that will be used to document how the corridor has changed since the late 1980s.

"We want to know how much forest remains in the corridor and how much was lost in the past 10 years. We can see that certain areas have higher deforestation rates than others. We can monitor the fragmentation of the forests with continued conversion for pasture and agricultural uses, including those areas that were once remote and inaccessible. But we also have good news in that there is more forest still in the protected zones, compared to the unprotected areas.

"A major goal of the project is to bring the science community together in the region," Sader says. "The hope is that it will grow into better cooperation and lead to better science that can be used to conserve and manage the natural resources."

by Margaret Nagle
December, 2001/January, 2002

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