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Foliage reports go high-tech: Rangers track colors by PDA

Posted Oct. 11, 2009, at 8:32 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The world of high-tech communications has reached the forests of Maine.

As they have done for the past 50 years, Maine’s forest rangers have been tracking the colors and leaf drop during the fall foliage season. This year, however, they are doing the job using personal data assistants, or PDAs. The PDAs allow the rangers to collect foliage information and transmit it electronically to Department of Conservation headquarters instantly while they are still in the field.

The devices came to the department as the result of a partnership with the Maine Army National Guard and the Maine Emergency Management Agency through a Department of Homeland Security grant to MEMA.

“Through that partnership we were able to get PDAs for all 57 of our field rangers,” said District Ranger Jeff Currier.

The primary purpose of the devices is to gather information for risk assessments during emergencies and disasters. The Maine Forest Service received the PDAs in April, and had used them during the spring flooding and the wildfire season.

“With this technology, a ranger can go to an area of concern, collect information and enter it into the PDA, including a picture and a GPS location,” Currier said Sunday. “Then they can use a cell phone or satellite signal to send it to headquarters. They’ve got the information and a point on a map and they can make a decision on how to respond. It is really a good system.”

It seems a natural transition to adapt the technology to the annual foliage reports. The department has collected foliage conditions for half a century, and in recent years has used the technology of the Internet to post that information on its Web site. The PDA technology streamlines the process.

“We’d make notes in the field on the [leaf] color and the drop and then fax it in or phone it in,” Currier said. “With this new technology, we can get it in a lot faster.”

The department worked with Global Relief Technologies, the Portsmouth, N.H.-based company that developed the technology, to adapt it to the collection of foliage information. Using the technology, the rangers’ observations are available immediately to Web site managers, giving them the most accurate and up-to-date information relating to the assessment of fall foliage.

“I’m very pleased to be able to support Maine’s fall foliage season, and subsequently our tourism industry, with this up-to-date information,” said Bill Williams, state supervisor for the Forest Protection Division, which oversees the field forest rangers. “It’s great when we can use modern technology to help provide a better experience for all of us who enjoy the spectacular fall colors.”

The PDAs make the collection of foliage information much more efficient, according to Gale Ross, the conservation department’s fall foliage spokeswoman.

“It’s an easier way for the forest rangers to get their photos and information to me, and its providing more accurate information with their on-ground observations.”

While the primary use of the PDAs will be for emergency response, Currier said the rangers are looking at many ways to apply their new technology. The PDAs also will be used during assessments of helicopter landing sites to provide accurate information on conditions on the ground, and perhaps to track fire equipment inventories across the state.

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