How remote monitoring with Lens allows a team of two people to cover acres of land and manage the unexpected.
Down in the southeastern part of Texas lies the incredible Guadalupe River basin. Spanning over 6,000 square miles in breadth, the basin encompasses three rivers, a diverse range of habitat corridors, ecology, and fauna, and goes from Kerrville, Texas all the way to the San Antonio Bay, where the Guadalupe River breaches into the sea.
It is also an area that’s managed by a small team of two.
Founded in 2001, The Guadalupe-Blanco River Trust (GBRT) is dedicated to protecting this particularly ecologically-rich Texan region, focusing on the conservation of land alongside the watershed.
We sat down with Stephen Risinger – Conservation and Stewardship Manager and one of two staff at the GBRT – to learn how Lens helped get monitoring done in record time, made it easy to train additional staff, and even made an impossible job, possible.
For those unfamiliar, river trusts, just like land trusts, work with landowners to conserve and protect land for future generations, together. Landowners remain owners of conserved areas but do so alongside a conservation easement or agreement, which sets the terms for how this land will be protected and stewarded for generations to come.
That’s right: conservation easements are set permanently, regardless of ownership.
Stephen joined the Guadalupe-Blanco River Trust as its manager in 2021. As anyone who works in land stewardship — of any kind — can corroborate: the job isn’t an easy one. In the case of the GBRT, land stewardship entails building rapport and relationships with landowners and communities, checking on county records to stay up to date with land ownership, meeting with city officials and, of course, visiting land in person and ensuring the terms of the conservation easement are upheld.
In summary: get to know and visit acres upon acres of land, the diversity of people and communities who live on it, and divide all of that between two people.
Stephen and Tyler Sanderson, GBRT Executive Director, are responsible for monitoring 11,000+ acres of land. It’s a job that gets done because it needs to get done, according to Stephen, but it doesn’t make the reality of the work any easier.
When Stephen learned about the Land Trust Alliance’s grant for remote monitoring, he saw an immediate fit. Despite a long tradition of putting GBRT boots on the ground, a typical practice of land trusts, there was an obvious solution with remote monitoring: save time and resources all while covering more ground and getting more information.
Upon receiving the grant in 2021, Stephen quickly identified Lens to be the best fit based on ease of use, access to up-to-date imagery, and a chat with our teammate, Jake (hey, thanks Jake!). Previously, GBRT relied on ArcGIS and inconsistent NAIP imagery. After meeting with our team 1:1 and getting a quick overview on how easy it is to get started with Lens, the choice was a no-brainer: Lens was the way.
Prior to using Lens, Stephen was in the field for about 50% of his work time. The rest of his time was quickly divided up in between the many responsibilities of a stewardship manager. With Lens, their team of two not only became more efficient but became able to train an additional staff member, freeing up even more time. In this case, an intern.
“Other tools are not conducive to quick monitoring” he began, relaying how they were able to train an intern to do basic monitoring in just a few hours. “Good luck doing that with GIS with someone who doesn’t already have years of experience or training”, he concluded.
The 2022 monitoring season began as monitoring seasons for GBRT typically do: early. Early, and quickly, to avoid field monitoring in the dense, Texan heat come summertime. In Stephen’s first year, he averaged around 1,200 miles a month during monitoring season, often spending days at a time in the field.
So, when he broke his right ankle at the beginning of February 2022, the situation, admittedly, looked a bit dire.
“All I could think was: I haven’t monitored any of our properties yet; what am I going to do now that my foot is broken?” Driving to sites wasn’t an easy fix, either; he often had to go out to sites riding an ATV and, while bouncing around in an ATV might sound cool…it didn’t as much with a bunch of fragile bones out of place. And oh yes: he broke his right foot, which is the foot you typically drive with.
“I tried driving with my left foot but it got me nowhere!”
Suddenly, the work took on a new angle.
Land stewardship, be it conservation, restoration, or preservation, often means being outside for long periods of time, and often traveling lengthily by foot, car, dune buggy – or all of the above. Luckily, the team of two were already set on renewing Lens on their own, given their success with the first year through the LTA.
Broken ankles notwithstanding, Lens ramped up efficiency for the team of two so much that not only were they able to do the monitoring — the pair finished the 2022 monitoring season in record time.
“Without Lens, it probably would have been impossible,” Stephen admitted to us. It’s important to remember that, on top of monitoring, land trusts are responsible for a heavy amount of bureaucratic work, as well. That year, the team was also hoping to set up a nature preserve, replete with a park, nature center and open space, which meant setting up a committee, spending hours planning in the office, and meeting up with city employees, councillors, and county commissioners. Lens freed up their time to get this work done, while also granting the pair an important tool for tackling the unexpected, even beyond injuries.
“We also caught some things we would have missed otherwise. There was a pipeline leak over one of our easements but no one knew about it. The landowner reported that they suddenly had an area that was barren, suddenly not growing any food.” Stephen quickly went into Lens to investigate, used the Analyze Area feature to investigate vegetation coverage over time, and quickly found the source of the trouble. They were able to identify the location, repair the leak, and begin work on restoring the affected area; work that may have taken days to pinpoint, alone.
Stephen’s team illustrated how powerful Lens can be: it’s easy to learn, easy to train on, and facilitates tackling both the expected, and unexpected, trials and tribulations of conservation stewardship managers.