Michael D. Jennings
1997 marks the year that GAP graduated from having a research and development status with an unresolved future to having realized its potential as an engine for sound conservation. In moving from the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units to the Center for Biological Informatics (http://www.usgs.gov/ttc/), GAP moved off of the "R&D" workbench and into an operations mode. The program also finds itself in a new agency with a bright future. A key component of the new USGS is forging partnerships between the agency and state and local governments, universities, other federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, and industry (Schaefer 1997). This by itself is great news.
That nagging question of what happens after a state GAP project is done can now be answered with a longer-term commitment by the USGSand hopefully by all GAP cooperatorsto continue developing and providing information; continue building the institutional relationships needed to achieve proactive conservation of all biodiversity; continue using GAP data in land use planning, management, and research. This is not to say that the USGS will be able to maintain all state project activities simultaneously or indefinitely. State GAP projects need to have discrete periods of activity to allow products to become stable, to be used and evaluated before a subsequent generation. They also need to continue building a broad base of user support within their respective states.
The status of GAP as an ongoing program means that the seven- to eight-year multilateral venture in research and development has matured rather than being discarded, as so many research projects are. GAP will be there in the future to work cooperatively on updates, to foster state-based capabilities, to find appropriate scales of economy for items such as TM, to regionalize state data, to improve methods and standards, to prospect and explore for new concepts and methods, and to disseminate new and better information about conservation biogeography.
In many ways, it is just now that there has been enough collective experience to support an ongoing national program. Prior to GAP, there was almost no real experience and a very small pool of skilled people who had actually mapped state-sized areas using multiple TM scenes for a base. It is just now that we have a National Vegetation Classification, methods for accuracy assessments (vertebrates as well as land cover), and many of the other basic guidelines needed for a cohesive outcome.
Now that we have a reasonable handle on what can be done, technically and cooperatively, the challenge is to commit to a long-term process of information bootstrapping (more extension and exploration, too). In an operational mode, we need to identify where our information is weak or lackingspatially, taxonomically, qualitativelyand target those areas for improvement through the ongoing activities of cooperators, guiding new investigations toward areas that need work or queuing them up for the next major update. For example, species can be sorted according to the number and detail of habitat affinity studies that have been done for each, in order to emphasize the information needs of those species that we know little about. Part of GAP should be to identify the gaps in our knowledge of the behavior and geography of each species and each alliance.
In 1998 GAP will have state projects under way or completed in each of the "lower 48," and a pilot project is under way in Mexico. Almost 20 state projects are due to deliver their first-generation products in 1998. In the coming year, the program will begin an effort to update the Southwest states by having analysts in each of the states specialize in a particular ecoregion province, allowing them to spend more time on the alliances within a large landscape type and across the multistate region. One of the most important new activities will be to "take profits" on what has become the largest experiment in remote sensing mapping methodologies by evaluating methods used by different states, then using that collective experience to generate more consistent and efficient methods for land cover mapping. The program has also launched efforts to apply the gap analysis concept to biodiversity of aquatic environments and invertebrate species.
With a lot of data finally coming in, we need to bend to the tasks of applying it to iterative analyses in new ways. Without, of course, ever losing sight of our user-clients and the ultimate need for extension of the information to all sectors of society, because on-the-ground resource planning and managementbackyard to statewideis where the real gains in conservation are to be found. So 1998 will also be a year of attempting progress in developing and trying out a variety of decision support systems that will use GAP data.
Just a few of the highlights beyond 1998: exploration of "smart" land cover updating technologies, better consolidation of specimen locality records, incorporating Mission to Planet Earth data, and generating land stewardship data resolved at the level of individual land management units.
The GAP community has more opportunity than ever to achieve its conservation-through-information goal. GAP would never have gotten this far without hundreds of individuals committed to taking on a big challenge and meeting a very large need. But weve only just set up. GAP cannot realize its potential without the sustained commitment and enthusiasm from you, the GAP community. Imagine that from the development of GAP information and cooperation could come a capabilityorganizational as well as technicalto develop and implement a unified national strategy for the conservation of biological diversity. Lets go do the next generation!
Schaefer, M. 1997. Enabling a bright scientific future. U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, Virginia.