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High-Tech Rec Forest Service Uses Satellites And Computers To Create Pinpoint Guide To Forest Trails

The Boulder Deer Creek crosscountry ski trail winds and rolls for 1 miles through the Colville National Forest.

Skiers who don’t know what to look for could easily miss its biology and beauty.

Witch’s hair moss hangs from lodgepole pines, a dead Western larch shelters pileated woodpeckers, panoramic vistas reach all the way to the Cascades.

To ensure visitors don’t miss the forest for the trees, the U.S. Forest Service is developing a detailed, high-tech recreation opportunity guide.

Using military satellites and computers, forest officials are mapping with pinpoint accuracy 2,000 miles of trails and highlighting their geography, history and biology.

“The public is demanding new recreation opportunities,” forest spokeswoman Cynthia Reichelt says. “This project is designed to enhance their experience.”

Bikers, hikers, horse riders and skiers now only have access to a crude, 12-page handout that includes just a few trails.

By year’s end, however, the Colville forest’s recreation menu will be available not only in a computer-generated booklet, but via a local computer network.

Through a joint project with Colville High School and its technical director, Mike Swatzell, information on the forest’s trails will be downloaded onto a local version of the Internet.

Anyone with a modem and a computer will be able to access it at no charge through TINCAN, The Inland Northwest Community Access Network, which will be up and running later this year.

“Normally, high tech doesn’t reach out and touch everybody, but this will,” says trails coordinator George McNicholl.

The Colville forest is a badly kept secret now drawing thousands of visitors, many from Seattle, he says. The booklet will be available to all at no cost.

The recreation guide was born out of demand and a make-do-with-less mentality. While the number of visitors is exploding, recreation dollars on the Colville and other forests are nosediving.

The recreation trails and wilderness budget is down from $1,043,000 last year to $645,000 this year - 38 percent.

Enter the Global Positioning System.

It began as a U.S. Department of Defense initiative 30 years ago to aid long-range navigation of ships and planes.

The Air Force launched satellites starting in the 1960s and tested them in the 1970s. The system went operational in the 1980s and passed its first major trial with the Gulf War.

Currently, 24 satellites rotate around Earth twice a day. Acting as precision compasses, hand-held data receivers can use satellite triangulation to pinpoint any location on the planet to within just a few feet.

The system now is available for non-military and even commercial use.

Since 1990, forest officials have used it to map roads and timber sale boundaries, says Mike Picard, a Kettle Falls Ranger District forester and an expert on GPS.

Using it to map trails and document their interesting features was a natural off-shoot, he says.

Earlier this week, Reichelt and public affairs assistant Penny Miller clicked on skis and mapped the Boulder Deer Creek trail.

Using a portable computer and an antenna, they charted the trail’s rising-and-falling elevations and the surrounding wildlife and biology features.

“It’s really a wonderful mix of educational and recreational information,” Reichelt says.

Ecosystem management staff officer Andy Mason said GPS is helping the forest improve its recreation program in the midst of a budgetary famine.

“We used to do these recreation opportunity guides on typewriters and copied them. They weren’t very good and were out of date in a short period of time.

“This is really a great thing.”


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