Spotting threats to wildlife, farmland from out in space

Lamenting civilization's threats to the pronghorn antelope, the prairie chicken, and prime farmland isn't good enough for researchers at the University of Kansas.

So over the last eight years the university has developed a well-coordinated aerial mapping program backed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In projects carried out with more than 40 local and regional agencies in Kansas and neighboring states, the Kansas Applied Remote Sensing (KARS) program has provided hard facts on what changes are taking place at ground level -- and has pinpointed with computer precision just where help is needed.

The data supplied by KARS is being widely used today. It is helping the Kansas Fish and Game Commission decide where the best areas are for protecting wildlife such as the prairie chicken. Land-use planners considering zoning restrictions rely on KARS for accurate pictures of the spread of urban development and the loss of farmland.

Another important application has been in the area of soil-erosion and water control. With competing demands on land increasing, KARS is being used to pick out locations where soil-conservation measures are needed by everyone to improve crop yields while at the same time saving water for productive uses; preventing water pollution from soil runoff, farm wastes, and chemicals; and reducing flood damage.

Key to the KARS program are NASA's two LANDSAT satellites, with a third due for launching in 1982. Peering down at wheat fields, prairie, and encroaching urban areas from 570 miles up, the satellites provide data for a wide range of Earth-based decisions.

The satellites record images of large areas, at relatively low cost compared with aerial photography. It takes only 15 LANDSAT pictures to cover all of Kansas, for example. Comparing the images taken over a period of years enables planners to see problems developing -- and began planning solutions.

The satellite data is fed through the Department of Interior's EROS (Earth Resources Observation System) Data Center in Sioux Falls, S.D. The next step is to program computers to use the data to print out images which will highlight the particular information needed for specific studies -- such as picking out alfalfa fields, based on slight variation in the color of light reflected by differenct types of vegetation.

The satellite pictures also serve as guides for later, more detailed photography of specific areas by either low- or high-flying aircraft.

KARS project coordinator Ed Martinko sees the greatest future potential of the Kansas program in the area of "erosion studies, irrigation mapping, and incorporating that information into water resources models." Environmental Studies Professor Martinko stresses that this work should continue to be done at state level because "each state has a unique set of priorities."

NASA's Joseph Vitale, manager of the university program in the Office of Space and Terrestrial Application, agrees that the local university-based approach works best. Since setting up the NASA remote sensing program in 1971, Mr. Vitale has seen eight university programs "graduate" to the point where state and other funding has allowed NASA to withdraw its own support. Currently NASA funds 21 programs similar to KARS in 27 states.

Mr. Vitale points out that using already existing satellite data has brought significant savings in money and in the environment.

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