WASHINGTON, D.C.--In a new strategy to monitor the world's forests, conservationists have created a global network that keeps tabs on where trees are coming under the saw. Global Forest Watch (GFW), announced yesterday, combines satellite technology with old-fashioned sleuthing to create detailed maps of forests. It has already turned up a rash of illegal logging operations.
The system starts with land cover images collected by U.S., European, and Russian satellites. GFW experts gather logging permit, mining, and other development data from governments and local advocacy groups. They plot the areas in question using spatial coordinates from the Geographic Information System and then post the maps on the Internet.
The GFW Web site  already hosts maps of Canada, Cameroon, and Gabon. Along with reports on these countries, the maps reveal how logged and slated-to-be-logged areas have expanded from 8% to 76% of Cameroon's forest since 1959--even though many of the operations are illegal. The Canada map depicts the reach of logging even into the slow-growing boreal forest. Maps for Russia, Brazil, and three other countries will be posted soon.
The network, launched by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington, D.C., and dozens of partners, is intended to be objective and neutral. WRI expects the site to serve governments, industry, and activists alike. For example, governments can use the maps to manage forests better, while environmentalists might find a drastic graphic handy for pressuring companies not to log primary forests. Global Forest Watch expects to expand to 21 countries over the next 5 years. "I think this is the first attempt to try to do this for much of the world," says WRI forest scientist Anthony Janetos.
Adding on-the-ground info to satellite images of land cover is "an important step forward," says Chris Justice of the University of Virginia, who works on an international forest cover project that uses data from satellites only. He thinks GFW's biggest challenge may be "building trust" with loggers, however. "If it's seen as undercover digging up, [GFW] won't get access to information."