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A New Perspective Is Aiding Conservation

Satellite image of a Wetland Reserve Easement outside of Burley, Idaho.
Satellite image of a Wetland Reserve Easement outside of Burley, Idaho.

Sometimes getting a different view of a situation or problem can make the solution much more apparent. NRCS Idaho has set out to show how that can work in the world of conservation easements. The first state to take advantage of the agreement with American Conservation Experience (ACE) and SWCA Environmental Consultants (SWCA), it is learning firsthand that utilizing drone imagery helps take some of the mystery out of conservation practices.

“We leapt at the opportunity to use this agreement to increase our in-field efficiency on restoration implementation and delivery,” said Curtis Elke, NRCS State Conservationist for Idaho.

With only one NRCS employee dedicated to easements and an engineering staff stretched thin working on various Farm Bill projects across the state, there simply wasn’t enough capacity to do the design and implementation work in as timely as fashion as our customers would like. This is especially true with Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE), which can have complex restoration designs dealing with stream hydrology and sensitive areas.

SWCA brings its expertise in the wetland design field to the table, and ACE is providing partner employees to coordinate between SWCA, the landowners and NRCS. In Idaho, that employee is Nick McGuire. “Having Nick as the single point of contact between the landowner and the contractor is key, said Wade Brown, Easement Coordinator for NRCS Idaho. “It streamlines and enhances our relationship with everyone. There is no guesswork about who to talk to.”

Brown selected three recently closed easements to be the first restorations undertaken utilizing the new SCWA agreement. One is in Blaine County and the other two, which are functioning as a contiguous unit, are north of Moscow. This is giving the team two very different restorations with very different hydrology to showcase their abilities to do timely work to NRCS standards that meets the landowner’s vision and needs.

Currently, work is in the planning stages on both projects. As part of the planning process, drones were flown with the landowners’ knowledge, presence, and in some cases active interest. “Gordon Snyder, who is one of our landowners, was fascinated by the data the drone was collecting,” said McGuire.

Snyder was so intrigued, he did a little comparative research. “On Google Earth, I found a series of 8 satellite photos of our WRE land starting in 1993 and going to 2015,” he said. “When I watched the Drone Flight video, there is an enormous amount of information. I discovered some fantastic views that show the historical wetland. The video shows the old beaver ponds and connecting waterways in the hayfield. In addition, it showed a new beaver pond built in upper Schwartz Creek.”

Image taken from drone recorded date of the same Wetland Reserve Easement outside of Burley, Idaho.
Image taken from drone recorded date of the same Wetland Reserve Easement outside of Burley, Idaho. The colors indicate elevation. Blue shows the surface level of bodies of water. Lowest subsequent elevation is the sand color. As the elevation rises the color moves from light to dark green to yellow to orange with red being the greatest elevation increase. It is also easier to see finer details with the drone image, such as historic channels.

The data the drones collect provide an extremely detailed picture of the conservation area. This helps the landowners like Snyder better understand what practices NRCS is asking them to undertake, why we are recommending they do so, and how by working with the natural processes they can best manage their property for longevity.

“Using drone imagery in restoration situations helps us and the landowner to better see extinct channels as well as microfeatures, and it shows us the current state of the site in much higher resolution,” said McGuire. “This will better allow us to put the water back where it wants to be in these wetlands.”

So how much more precise is this than a regular ground survey? The resolution on the data with the drone is in the order of 1 point per square inch.  To create an elevation model for restoration design using a traditional ground survey, surveyors try to get about 10 points per acre.  That’s 10 points per acre by hand vs about 4 million points per acre with the drone.  The resolution of the elevation model achieved with a drone would be impossible to get with even an army-sized ground crew.  For example, the conservation easement in Blaine County is 688.54 acres.  It took McGuire and the drone pilot 4 full days, including some inclement weather, to do the survey.  When the numbers are extrapolated out, it’s astounding how efficient drone surveys are for what they produce. 

Drones provide a better picture of the whole system and then use that to inform design, as opposed to having a concept for a design and then survey what would be relevant given that. Plans that take the entirety of the system into account have fewer issues down the road, even if they focus on only part of the whole.

Using drones to collect survey data provides more flexibility than traditional methods. If a planner were to go out on foot on with an ATV, there are places he or she could not get to due to water. In addition, some wet meadow areas are quite fragile, and with the drone there is no need to tread through them or drive an ATV over them and risk spooking nesting birds or damaging the ecosystem. 

A ground-level view of a Wetland Reserve Easement outside of Burley, Idaho. Compared to the satellite and drone images the easement does not have a lot of readily apparent features or changes in elevation.
A ground-level view of a Wetland Reserve Easement outside of Burley, Idaho. Compared to the satellite and drone images the easement does not have a lot of readily apparent features or changes in elevation.

Once data from the drone is downloaded it is used to create models that the restoration plan is designed from. “We also share the models we create with landowners so that they get a new perspective on land they may have been managing for generations,” said McGuire.

It’s a thought that’s borne out by Snyder’s own research. “The satellite photos (I found) are wonderful from a historical point, but they don’t have enough resolution to show much detail about certain areas, he said, “For example, the current beaver pond photos from the drone flight wouldn’t be visible.”

Brown noted that SWCA has a way to incorporate the drone images into the software program used by the equipment that does the “heavy lifting” so that it can work at precision levels. “They can set it to remove a specific number of inches and the machine calibrates so that it only removes that much,” said Brown. “How cool is that?”

Once the restoration work is done, monitoring begins. When easements being assisted by this agreement reach that point, the drones will be back. “Monitoring helps the landowner see what is and what is not working, so that they can make adjustments to ensure their land is healthy when they pass it down to the next generation,” said Brown. “On the NRCS side, it let’s us know that the landowner is getting the right return on the easement.”

“That photo of the beaver pond I got off the video shows how much more information and data is obtained from the drone compared to historical satellite photos. And it is current,” said Snyder. “Can you imagine how important more drone flights could be if they are scheduled to monitor the WRE progress over time?”

McGuire and Brown are looking forward to seeing how drone technology is going to advance in the next few years and how it will enhance their conservation work with landowners.