Science Journal

Geographical Information Systems use on the MMR
by Dr. Tracy Hampton

Protecting turtles and optimizing military training may not seem to go hand in hand. But officials at the Massachusetts Military Reservation - known as the MMR - are trying to accomplish both. It's all part of a digital mapping system that will soon be used at every base in the country.

Dave Cray looks out of place on the MMR - he doesn't sport military fatigues and a rifle. Instead, he's in civilian clothes and carrying a backpack, and jutting out of it is a long pole with a disc on top. Cray's mission is to provide the most realistic training grounds for National Guard soldiers while at the same time protecting the natural and cultural resources found on the base's 15,000 acres of land.

Dave Cray: "This is a global positioning system, and it talks to about twenty-eight satellites that orbit the globe. And we can walk roads with it, and know those exact features on the face of the Earth. On my back is a receiver, and an antenna is attached. That captures the signal that goes down to my handheld unit. I'm going to take a point here. "

Over the past few years, Cray's collected information and made maps containing detailed information on the lay of the land at Camp Edwards on the military base - information like where to find rare turtles, sensitive wetlands, or ideal training grounds. He's now moving on to oversee similar projects for every National Guard base in the country. The goal is to use Geographical Information Systems - or GIS - to create maps for troops while they train. Cray says it's important these days because the military's under a lot of environmental pressure to use their land properly.

Dave Cray: "There are many, many different laws and regulations - you have natural resource goals, cultural things that can't be used, wetlands that can't be used, and the GIS allows you to pull every single one of those on an overlay and produce a map that shows where training can go on and where training can't go on."

Those regulations are in place because bases house some of the best wilderness in the country. Cray says the military often keeps land from being over-developed, particularly in places like Cape Cod.

Dave Cray: "You have a base like Camp Edwards, and slowly the population grows around it so you have people right on the outside. So then you become a forested habitat vs. an urban habitat. Some people say this is protecting forested area that would've become strip malls or urban areas."

Environmentalists at The Nature Conservancy says GIS is a great tool for conservation research, and they're glad the military is using it to determine what areas should be off-limits to training. But do the guidelines set down by Cray?s project to protect the environment get in the way of training? Lieutenant Jeremy Oliver is a training officer at the base, and he says no, they actually benefit the troops.

Jeremy Oliver: "Because we can also tailor the training more effectively for whatever task that organization is doing. If the infantry want to go into thicker brush, with the GIS data, we're able to look at that, contour it, pick areas that are more suitable for the types of missions they want to conduct out here."

Lynda Wadsworth of the Environmental and Readiness Center at the base says this project is an example of the military's attempts to take care if its land.

Lynda Wadsworth: "Because the healthier the training land, the more realistic the training. The more realistic the training, the better these soldiers do in real world situations."

Lieutenant Oliver says GIS will also come in handy during those critical, real world situations.

Lieutenant Oliver: "If you use it in a combat situation, you could assign the particular data to a location on the map, like if there's an unexploded ordinance or some sort of biological hazard, you could put that in and bring that data up in real time so commanders in the field can use that." Environmental uses aside, the military primarily applies GIS towards improving operations. On the battlefield, GIS helps troops decide where to set up ambush sites and where to expect to find possible enemy locations. GIS was used recently in both Bosnia and Afghanistan for just those purposes.

Broadcast July 25,2003

Dr. Tracy Hampton reports for the Cape and Islands NPR stations.