-Written by Claudia Buszta ’19
This summer, I have the privilege of working with the Southern Madison Heritage Trust (SMHT). SMHT is the local land trust that serves the general area of Hamilton, NY. It is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization that conserves land for the benefit of the overall community. These lands are preserved for the purposes of protecting valuable habitats, resources, scenic landscapes, and historic features. SMHT currently manages five properties within and around Hamilton, each of which has their own unique features. Members of the community who wish to see a certain piece of land conserved can contact the land trust and either donate or sell their land outright, meaning that SMHT will own and operate the property themselves, or set up a conservation easement on the property. In this way, SMHT is an important part of the community and allows for meaningful land to be preserved for generations to continue to enjoy and use.
So far during my experience, I have learned a lot about what it takes to run a non-profit within a small town like Hamilton and seen first-hand the valuable ways in which community members work together towards a common mission. The members of SMHT put in a lot of time and effort to run the organization and ensure that their properties are maintained to the highest degree. By attending board meetings, I have been able to see first-hand how budgets are discussed, plans for upkeep and maintenance are made, events are organized, and issues are brought up in a civil and productive manner. I personally have been working with Harvey Kliman, the current president of SMHT, who has shared his extensive knowledge of the area with me and has taught me all about how land trusts operate. He has detailed to me the long-term goal of SMHT to become accredited through the Land Trust Alliance (LTA), a national organization of land trusts with its own standards of conservation and land management practices. For SMHT, accreditation would mean a stamp of approval to assure community members that they are an organization that can be trusted, along with more opportunities for funding to continue maintenance of their properties.
Part of the accreditation process requires showing LTA that records are kept of each property, which includes consistent monitoring reports, accurate imagery, and updated maps. This is where my project comes in. Most of the work SMHT does involves managing the ecological health of their properties, maintaining borders, trails, and any other structures meant for public use, and developing monitoring reports on a regular basis. A monitoring report is an extensive account of the current state of a property. This report includes many images which showcase the property and any infrastructure, important landmarks, and boundary markers that are important characteristics of the property. Often, in developing these reports, the members of the land trust walk the property and take record of any observations or changes. This can be a very time-intensive process for an organization that is run by volunteers. The goal of my project is to assess the use of drones in developing high-resolution imagery of a property. This would, in theory, cut down a lot on the time it takes for members to walk the entire property and take images from the ground. In addition, drones offer a new perspective of a property that would allow members to see any changes in the landscape that might not be apparent from the ground. My work involves developing a flight plan for each of SMHT’s properties and then flying a drone to capture hundreds of pictures from the air, which are then stitched together through software. Once each property is completed and a complete image is generated, I then develop a monitoring report using the image and supplementary ground photos. Using what I learn and experience through this work, I am creating a protocol for SMHT to use in the future if they decide to invest in drone technology for further monitoring.
As an Environmental Geography major, I am interested in the idea of conservation, and wish to pursue it as a career path for myself. I enjoy learning about how different communities approach conservation to meet their own needs and the requirements of the lands they are trying to conserve. Every community has its own reasons for why conservation may be important, which can be anything from habitat preservation to valuable resource management. As a computer science minor, I also think that new technologies are very promising in conservation efforts, and drones are a perfect example of this. I hope to get out of this project a better understanding of how local land trusts operate within their communities along with the challenges they might face in managing their properties. I hope to gain experience operating drones and to expand upon the idea that it is a valuable technology that many organizations can invest in. I am glad to have had this opportunity to be an Upstate Fellow because it means I get to work with the real people in the community who are tackling these issues and I am able to learn from them just as much as they will learn from my project.