GeoInspirations: Breece Robertson - Making a Positive Difference on Protected Lands

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Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Breece Robertson from the Trust for Public Land, New Mexico.

About 10 years ago, I was in the audience when Breece Robertson spoke to over 15,000 people at the Esri User Conference about the work with which she and her organization, The Trust for Public Land, are engaged. I had known of her work before then, but what became apparent to me through this presentation and talking with Breece afterward, was that she has been a longstanding advocate for wise stewardship of lands, whether managed by TPL or not, and the application of geospatial technologies for wise decision-making. Therefore, it is my great pleasure to introduce Breece to Directions Magazine readers and, through her story, inspire you to make a positive difference in our world.

I asked Breece to describe her current position and her journey to it. She replied, “I’m from a small town in North Carolina called Hamlet (apropos!). I grew up playing outdoors — swimming, building forts in the woods, exploring, horseback riding, and fishing. I have always loved the outdoors. I got a B.A. in Exercise Physiology and thought I would go into the medical field — perhaps a doctor of some sort. Before I pursued that career, which would take me into many years of school and residency, I decided to take a break and explore the West. I had never been west of the Mississippi, so I drove out with my dog, Maggie, and a suitcase in a van. I drove all around the Intermountain West, camping and exploring, and fell in love with the outdoors even more. I ended up living in Albuquerque for five years, then [moved] back to North Carolina for family reasons, and got my Masters in Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University while living in Boone, North Carolina. I fell in love with this new career and it let me engage with a few things that I have a passion for: Maps, communities working together to save or preserve what they love about their communities, and public lands.”

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“After graduating with this degree, I yearned to get back out to New Mexico. I found myself in Santa Fe, where I met The Trust for Public Land for the first time – an organization with the mission of “land for people” – and I knew I found my dream career. To work with a national organization that is filled with passionate people working hard every day to protect our public lands and create new park and public lands for us all is an honor. I started as the first GIS employee at TPL and now have a team of GIS and planning professionals that consists of 20 staff and 10 or more consultants working on projects nationwide.”

“The Trust for Public Land has embraced the innovation that science, data, and analytics provides in concert with planners who are experts at community engagement and facilitation. We help communities find consensus on what they want to protect or create — from drinking water quality, better access to recreation lands and parks, wildlife habitat protection, climate resilient solutions like absorbing stormwater (think Houston and Hurricane Harvey, 2017), community gardens, parks that reflect communities based on art in the park, parks that provide public health benefits, and more.”

“Parks provide more than just places to recreate. They provide all kinds of benefits to communities, especially economic benefits. We are using GIS and planning to elevate parks from tier two solutions in communities across the country to tier one solutions. What does that mean? Park department budgets are often the first thing to get cut when cities run into budgeting issues. Cities don’t tend to see parks and public spaces as providing multiple benefits and economic returns to the city. We are using GIS to prove the point that parks are key to making cities attractive and beautiful for the people that live there while cleaning the air, cooling down neighborhoods, saving the city money by absorbing storm water that would normally flood neighborhoods and city buildings, refuges for wildlife, and so much more.”

I asked Breece, “What was the most important thing that convinced you to enter this field?” She replied, “Maps, meteorology, earth science and ecology. The Master’s program at Appalachian State University was an eclectic mix of GIS and planning topics. I appreciated the opportunity to get exposure to all types of disciplines and careers where planning and GIS play a big role in understanding the challenges and opportunities in those fields. I learned about regional geography from Ole Gade, earth science from Michael Mayfield, feminist geography from Kathy Schroeder, [and] explored the high Altiplano on a trip with Baker Perry. I was exposed to so many different lenses on the field of geography, and I am thankful for that.”

I asked Breece, “What one person, class, or topic most inspired you during your career?” To which she replied, “My career at TPL has been an interesting one! I just celebrated my official 16th year on staff at TPL. I actually started as a consultant in 2001 so I have now officially been at TPL for 17 years. When I started, the organization was focused mostly on land transactions and less on providing services to communities. That meant hard work to build a service-oriented department within the organization. I started out making maps: For example, a project manager had a meeting with a landowner or the forest service and they needed a map to show where the property was located and overlay of data on why that property was important for protection. As I traveled around the country to our then 40+ offices, I began to see that TPL could play an important role in helping communities develop conservation plans. I worked with our Seattle office and our small but growing GIS team to create the first ‘Greenprint.’ A Greenprint starts with community engagement and leads to state-of-the-art computer models and maps developed using GIS, and the interactive maps highlight key areas for protection based on residents’ own conservation priorities and where possible conservation funding is available.”

“Speaking of a small but growing team, our team is today, and always has been, made up of staff and GIS consultants. I’m honored today to have a best-in-class GIS and planning team. Everyone contributes different skillsets, knowledge, creative license, and vision to our mission-driven focus. I build a strong core of professionals on staff, and we enhance and accentuate our team by building relationships with GIS consultants who bring specialty skillsets to the team that we may not have on staff. Consultants also work with many different clients and can bring their knowledge and experience of working with other clients and partners to bear on our conservation projects. For example, we’ve been trying to figure out how to measure park and public land usage and have identified several different approaches. We are working with a university partner to develop an approach using social media, and with a consultant to pilot using anonymized cell phone data to estimate usage. It’s a really exciting project and it’s the combination of partnerships with all types of entities from universities to consultants that amplify what is possible. We couldn’t do it alone.”

“Jane Goodall is a big inspiration to me. I had been following Jane since grade school but had the privilege to hear her speak and to meet her at the 25th Annual Esri International User Conference in 2005. The dedication and passion around everything she believes in and cares about motivates me every day.  Her role in changing what we know about animals, her career as an in-field scientist, her conservation values, and her activism are only a few things to note. I think of Jane often when I am facing a dilemma and wonder – what would Jane do? I’m particularly inspired by her use of GIS to do strategic conservation planning to save chimpanzee habits worldwide and the way she is engaging and building the next generation of conservationists through Roots and Shoots. She is an amazing woman.”

“The CEO of our organization inspires me: Will Rogers. He is passionate about land conservation and that is apparent when he talks about the work we and our partners do for conservation. When Will and I first had the opportunity to meet with Esri President Jack Dangermond, Will was still learning about this ‘GIS thing’ and he was way out of his league (Will would say this too) but he hung in there and has been a true champion of advancing GIS within the organization from day one of my career. He has also supported me through the thick and thin times, like during the recession, when a GIS program may have been considered a nice-to-have in an organization (and easily cut). Will saw that GIS is so much more than that. It provides a vehicle for an organization to be strategic, proactive, creative, and forward thinking. Now GIS is core to everything we do at The Trust for Public Land. The way we use data, science, and analytics drives our strategies; for example, our parks within a 10 minute walk of home initiative, and our national programs like Climate-Smart Cities.”

“Will, Jack, and I sparked a friendship out of our passion for conservation. Jack inspires me exponentially. I’m a curious and creative person by nature and every time I see Jack speak or meet with him, he comes up with big picture visions and approaches, many of which have been groundbreaking for my career at TPL, in the way we approach data, analytics, and presentation of our results. In 2006, we won the Special Achievement in GIS award for Greenprinting, and in 2012, we won the prestigious Making a Difference award from Jack. Will and I stepped onto the stage at the annual user conference to receive the award from Jack in front of 15,000 people! Wow! I remember the Friday afternoon when Jack called to inform me that he had chosen me and The Trust for Public Land for this award for our innovations in developing community-driven conservation planning methodologies using GIS. I was so surprised, humbled, and deeply honored.”

I asked Breece to describe the project in her life that she is the proudest of being a part. She said, “Gosh, it’s hard to pick just one. ParkScore® ranks high on the list. It’s the first ranking system of city parks in the U.S. and includes data from the 100 largest cities. GIS is key to this project because by using Network Analyst, we’ve finally been able to map the 10-minute walk to a park by using walkable road networks and then identifying where people have access to parks and where they don’t. Then we and our partners use the maps, which show in bright red and orange where people need parks the most based on demographics and proximity. We provide geodesign tools like the ParkEvaluator for anyone to draw a potential park, push a button to run our models in the background to get a result of how many new people that park would serve, and the demographic profile of those people. I’m really excited that we are taking ParkScore to scale through a project called ParkServe®, where we created the first national database of urban and local parks and are running that 10-minute walk analysis for almost 14,000 cities and towns nationwide. We just released the first version of ParkServe with 7,000+ cities and towns; the rest will be released in the spring. These two projects are key to The Trust for Public Land’s Parks for People strategy with the goal of ‘a quality park within a 10-minute walk from home for all.’ Equity is a key focus for all the work that we do. We strive for equitable access to parks and public lands for everyone. We choose to work in places where parks will have the biggest impacts on those most in need – like low income communities or neighborhoods with a lot of children. GIS helps us be strategic in that deliberate goal of access ‘for all.’ I’m also really proud of our Climate-Smart Cities work and Greenprinting, which are processes built around a robust GIS framework.”

Breece also wanted to point out that her position was endowed by the organization during 2017. “This is huge for a GIS professional. Only four other positions are endowed at TPL. An endowed position is a position permanently paid for with the revenue from an endowment fund specifically set up for that purpose. It’s a huge honor and a testament to the power that GIS brings to an organization. It means that the organization is willing to permanently fund that position.”

What is the most important thing Breece thinks we need to work on as the geographic community? “Continuing to support geography and GIS to make sure we are out in the forefront of education, government, and industry.” She went on to say that, “It’s all about the stories we can tell from our sometimes geeky and wonky work. It’s all about the data …and the facts. And both matter. A LOT! Many times our profession and the technology get the backseat on the story but we, as geography and GIS professionals, need to push those boundaries and be in the forefront of the story. We need to make our voices heard. We need to be the ones out there leading the charge, confident (Take public speaking classes or do Toast Masters!) because we have a lot to contribute! Take leadership classes or find a mentor, because we are leaders. Our profession leads the way through visuals, maps, data, and statistics. We need strong leaders who understand GIS and geography and the impacts of these professions to stand up and lead the way…especially the young generation.”

Breece’s advice to new geographers, surveyors, and GIS professionals is, “Learn a broad range of skillsets – first from technical to soft skills. Seek out opportunities to speak up in public meetings, create maps for local NGOs, learn about Big Data, learn coding, understand where the technical landscape is heading and get some hands-on experience or find a friend to mentor you around some of the new advancements in not only the GIS and geography fields, but in the technical fields in general. Lead a public meeting (or co-lead one). Video yourself presenting and make sure you are a strong presenter. Get feedback from peers on your technical approach and your delivery. Experience is golden. Take an internship or fellowship. Don’t be afraid to ask for informational interviews to understand what your favorite industry is looking for. Contact the human resources department directly to set those up. Did I say learn code for emerging GIS professionals? Also R, Insights, Tableau….so much to learn. That’s what’s exciting about the GIS profession! Think outside of the box always: See how other industries are solving problems and think about how that might translate to the problem you have to solve. Write memos to you superiors about your creative visions. Be precise. What problem are you trying to solve? How will you solve it potentially? What is the cost? What are the risks? What are the rewards? Be bold – because you can do this!”

Breece leaves us with one of her favorite thoughts from Edward Abbey from an essay in “Saving Nature’s Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity”:

“It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space.”

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