Imagine that you live in a beautiful, scenic area along the Salinas River. You have fled city life to spend your time out in the peace and quiet of rural San Luis Obispo County. Now imagine you learn that a local company has plans to blow up a mountainside your bedroom window overlooks and haul it away with 273 gravel truck trips daily. The company assures the community that the project will provide benefits. It will supply aggregate to meet all of the County’s needs. It will create open space (although the space is already open) and preserve the natural landscape (by digging big holes in the ground). And always, always, the drumbeat of creating new local jobs and boosting the economy.
You read the description of the location of the project in the Environmental Impact Report, which says:
The property is located at 6660 Calf Canyon Road (SR 58), and includes Assessor’s Parcel Numbers (APN) 070-141-070 (78 acres) and 071 (156 acres). The project site is within Section 10, Township 29 South, Range 13 East, Mt. Diablo Base and Meridian, on the Santa Margarita CA 7.5 minute USGS quadrangle. Specifically, it includes: APN 070-141-070: E/2 of the SW/4 of Section 10, APN 070-141-071: W/2 of the SE/4, NE/4 of the SE/4, and SE/4 of the NE/4 of Section 10. The approximate center of the proposed quarry site within the property is located at: 35°24’53’N and 120°33’55.5’W.
You wonder what that means. Where is the quarry going to be exactly? How big is it and what will that mountain look like if the project is approved?
For Charlie Kleemann, the vague maps provided by the applicant for the Las Pilitas Quarry project were only the beginning.Â Using free resources provided by Google Earth Outreach, and inspired by a Bioneers plenary lecture by Rebecca Moore of Google Earth about her own fight against a proposed catastrophic logging plan for the Los Gatos Creek Watershed, Charlie created three-dimensional drawings to show what impacts the quarry would really have.
“The planning process is mostly words on paper,” says Charlie. “Using Google Earth images brings out all of the issues you could not have visualized from the documents.”
Charlie began by putting the project coordinates into Google Earth to get an aerial overview of the project area. He then overlaid the project map onto the Google Earth image, which merged it into the proper elevations. “We were able to get an initial idea of the scope and size of the quarry project,” says Charlie, “and we were able to view the affected area from infinite locations.” This flexibility allowed Charlie to show his neighbors what the quarry would look like from their homes. “Our goal,” explains Charlie, “was to create images that would not require commentary to communicate. With these, we’re not only going to engage the community, but call into question the visual resources component of the EIR.”
Charlie and other project opponents took these visual representations to public meetings to use as teaching tools. “We could not have accurately represented what this project would have looked like without Google Earth,” he says. “The visual resource studies done by the Las Pilitas Quarry EIR consultant were second-rate. We were able to create shots from the same locations with much better definition.”
The project opponents were able to use the Google Earth images in more ways than they had initially imagined. One example was the air quality analysis, which identified â€œsensitive receptors, i.e. residents near enough to the project to be negatively impacted by pollution and dust from quarry operations. “The draft EIR identified only five receptors,” recalls Charlie. He telephoned the Air Pollution Control District and learned that the standard for an air quality receptor study was a 1,000-foot radius around the property line. “The night before comments were due on the Draft EIR, using Google, we drew a 1,000-foot line around the project and identified not five, but at least fifteen receptors triple what the EIR consultant found.”
I have to be an engineer or computer genius to use these tools, you might be thinking. “Not at all,” says Rebecca Moore, Engineering Manager for Google Earth Outreach. “There is a whole library of video tutorials on our website (www.google.com/earth/outreach) that will allow you to teach yourself how to create a map using our satellite imagery, embed GIS data into it, add photos and image overlays, and create a narrated tour, all with free software” she explains. If you have more advanced requirements, such as making videos of your Google Earth tours or exporting high-resolution satellite imagery to large format posters, Google has professional software available that can accomplish this. “Google offers free grants of our professional mapping software to nonprofits to further environmental, human rights and public health projects, to name a few. Just check out the Grants section of our website,” says Rebecca. In fact, Google Earth Outreach’s web site is filled with case studies using Google Earth to address issues such as Appalachian mountaintop removal, tracking elephants to protect them from poachers and conservation of British Columbian coastline. “We also do free workshops all over the world to teach people how to use our mapping tools to jumpstart them on their projects, and even to become trainers themselves,” says Rebecca. “Our goal is to democratize access to mapping technology.”
Want to learn more about Google Earth Outreach and the Las Pilitas Quarry story? Rebecca Moore and Charlie Kleemann will team up for a Central Coast Bioneers Conference workshop on Sunday, October 27 on using Google Earth as a tool for grassroots environmental activism and as a way to level the playing field. As Charlie put it, “the County does not appear to be accustomed to project opponents presenting technology better than the developers.”