Report Review: The Spatial History Project's "Conservation for the land or for the species?""

Stanford’s Spatial History Project asks us an important question: Is conservation for the land or for the species? In their report, Peers and Santos look at the development of “open spaces” in relation to when endangered species are discovered and the spaces they truly occupy. Peers and Santos define open spaces as including ecological preserves, national parks, and protected parks, among many other areas that support California’s natural biodiversity. Through their charts and interactive map, Peers and Santos argue that there is a disconnect between land that has been designated as open spaces and the discovery of threatened and endangered (T&E) species and that many T&E species lie outside these open spaces even contemporarily

One of the merits of this project is its overall clarity in its message. Through the charts and the digital map, it is very easy to see the disconnect between open space acquisition and T&E species. The map itself makes wonderful use of the digital medium by displaying the gradual acquisition of land as open spaces and where T&E species are discovered over time. The digital maps allows a much clearer visual representation than the graphs alone do. The graphs are limited to define species as either inside or outside open spaces, but the map can show the viewer just how little the general acquisition of land matches up with the placement of T&E species. Viewers can see how much of the overlap in many of the earlier decades seems almost random and can see hot-spots of T&E species that are ignored.

The data here could be very useful for those wishing to address concerns about the processes that are used to acquire land to be designated as an open space, particularly at the state and federal levels. In addition, the projects opens the floor for other questions to be asked and researched. Do other states or areas in other countries have similar disconnects? What are the governing influences on land acquisition if not focused on the acquisition of land where T&E species reside? A layman could easily understand the data presented here and be intrigued by such questions, and the project does a good job of informing anyone who comes across it of the situation, with or without an extensive academic background on the subject. It definitely speaks to the argument that “The particular contribution of the digital humanities, however, lies in its exploration of the difference that the digital can make to the kinds of work that we do as well as to the ways that we communicate with one another” (Fitzpatrick). The use of the digital medium allows something that could have been presented without taking advantage of digital tools be much more concise and clear.

The map itself, while very informative, has a few issues that should be addressed. Firstly, the map is centered on a graph showing the T&E species that are either inside or outside open spaces. This is information that has already been presented to us in the various graphs of the report and draws attention from the new information presented in the geographic map of California. Additionally, the map does not account for much of the uncertainty in the data. In the “About” section, Peers and Santos note that some of the data listed general locations of T&E species as opposed to specific ones, yet this uncertainty is not referenced on the visual graphic in any way. Reuschel and Hurni’s “Mapping Literature: Visualization of Spatial Uncertainty in Fiction,” speaks very much to the importance of identifying such uncertainty to help remove any author bias and includes several methods of doing so which certainly would not be out of the question for this particular graphic. A final note is that even though the urban areas box is checked off from the opening of the interactive map, the city names are still displayed. However, after clicking the graphic to add or remove urban areas, the city names are only displayed if the box is checked. While the concept of allowing the viewer to choose whether or not to include city names overcomes the issue of the need of distortion to display everything clearly (Monmonier 23), if the cities and urban area definitions are to be separate at one point, they should remain separate as the incongruity can be confusing.

However, the importance and clarity of this project is not to be overlooked. I would suggest it to be viewed by anyone, but especially with those interested in improving land conservation or those who might be intrigued in finding out motivations as to why the particular land was acquired from a more economic standpoint.


Digital Cartography Review: Critical Habitat

In their project, “Critical Habitat: A Spatial History of Extinction and Reintroduction”, Jon Christensen and Gabriel Shields-Estrada address the environmental changes overtime in a small a California Grassland.  They specifically examine the failed conservation strategies for a species of butterfly and map the historical conservation efforts that, despite their good intentions, ended up hurting the butterfly population and driving it towards extinction.  In line with Guldi’s argument on Spatial Turn, Christensen and Shields-Estrada use digital maps as a new tool for addressing an old question – “re-examine the 20th century narrative of the transformation of California’s grasslands and how that history shaped modern conservation” (Christensen and Shields Estrada).

Christensen and Shields-Estrada visually take the reader through a population history of the area. By combining interactive maps and graphical figures, they place their work in conversation with LeFevre’s argument about the objectivity of maps.  LeFevre argues that maps can not be completely objective, and this project demonstrates that although these maps seem to be depicting biological facts (somewhat objective), the juxtaposition of map and graph (below), presents a strong subjective argument.

This image depicts the authors argument that as grazing lands decrease, more butterfly extinctions occur. This type of mapping represents a new spin on thick-mapping explained in Hypercities. While Christensen and Shields only provide two layers on their actual map (area and extinction status), coupling the map with an interactive graph allows for even more layers – time, land status, and a land-status/extinction rate relationship. The two interactive map/graph figures in this project provide the most substance and the strongest arguments. They are visually pleasing, easy to use and understand, and digital for a reason. They further the authors arguments that physical changes in the landscape, especially the introduction of parks, protected areas, and new developments, is correlated with the demise in butterfly populations. While this argument may or may not be correct, the authors use maps to present it in a clear way.

While Jon Christensen and Gabriel Shields-Estrada present a clear and significant case for the importance of environmental mapping when examining previous population trends, their final product lacks in several areas.  In their introduction, the authors stated that they would use “18th and 19th century data sources to re-examine the 20th century narrative of the transformation of California’s grasslands and how that history shaped modern conservation”, but none of their final products present any data before 1960.  In terms of graphing, the two impressive visualizations are bold and influential, but they lack in interactiveness. A reader simply presses play and watches history unfold.  If there was a way to zoom in on a particular place, the authors would introduce a new level of scale that would make their maps more interactive and engaging.  Additionally they graph the changes in land use, but including this on a map would allow for their argument on the interconnectedness of land use change and population status to visually thrive.

Overall Christensen and Shields-Estrada use maps to examine a previous phenomena that will aid in future conservation decisions. Their use of maps to answer historical questions as well as provide future solutions is refreshing and strong, and brings justification to Geographic Representation as an area of study.