Google Earth, viewshed, and accountability

After I finished grad school, my friend and fellow graduate Larry Alder was nice enough to invite me on a rafting trip down the wild and scenic portion of the Rogue River in Oregon (here’s another story from that same trip). This was a great treat for me, because Larry, in addition to being an excellent aerospace engineer, was also a professional river guide for a whitewater rafting company. We got the royal treatment, rafting through pristine wilderness for three days… long enough to feel that civilization was far far away. When we finally pulled the boats out and started driving home, Larry took us up an obscure and steeply pitched logging road. Just as soon as we crested the ridge, we saw the forest had been completely cut to the ground. It looked like a massive abrasion wound. The contrast was shocking, but the clear-cut area was artfully situated so as to be invisible from nearby highways and especially from the happy tourists of the Wild Rogue Wilderness area. This was an exercise in viewshed management, and it was a public relations masterstroke for the logging industry.

Here’s a Google map of the area I was in. That’s the Rogue running across the bottom right. And those yellow bald patches in the middle are clear-cut regions exactly where I remember them, just out of sight over the ridge. Try switching to the “Terrain” view to see the topography.

My trip was around twenty years ago. It’s interesting to find evidence of the same practice years later, but the obvious difference is that it’s so easy to find the evidence at all. And it’s even clearer to see what I’m talking about with Google Earth:

You don’t have to use Google Earth for more than a few minutes to see that these days a ninth grader could do an impressive quantitative analysis of clear-cut logging in Oregon for a science project. The data’s all there.

Naturally, there’s no need to stop in Oregon. Look at the corrosive effect of roads on forests along the Congo River. I look forward to hearing stories about how companies and governments are being held accountable in new ways by this new evidence. A satellite has the most expansive viewshed of all.

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