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Maintaining Gross National Happiness: Bhutanese foresters adapt tech to monitor forests

UTAH — From Nov. 27 to Dec. 8 seven forest researchers from Bhutan worked with staff at the Forest Service Geospatial Technology and Applications Center to share techniques and knowledge for developing maps of forest change. Bhutan is a small country, a little larger than Maryland, nestled between India and China in the Himalayan Mountains. The Bhutanese Constitution recognizes the importance of natural resources and a healthy environment for the people’s Gross National Happiness — the central philosophy of Bhutan’s government. Indeed, the constitution requires that “a minimum of 60 percent of Bhutan’s total land shall be maintained under forest cover for all time.” So, despite Bhutan’s small size they are taking a leading, proactive role in monitoring and conserving forests. 

The Bhutanese foresters’ work with the Forest Service is part of a Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research project that is funded by the United States Agency for International Development. Participants came from the Department of Forest and Park Services in Bhutan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. They were hosted and trained by GTAC staff in Salt Lake City, Utah, specifically Kevin Megown, Mark Finco, Robert Chastain, Josh Goldstein and Ian Housman.  The International Programs office leveraged USAID funding to cover Forest Service time to host and train the group.

This project is using Google Earth Engine to develop maps and data in a consistent, replicable and cost-effective manner. Google Earth Engine provides petabyte-scale processing and storage in a cloud environment that is as easily accessed in Bhutan as it is the United States. The analysis is using freely available Landsat images to assess forest cover change and trends. In addition to creating maps of forest change, participants are learning to map forest fire severity. The results from this project will be invaluable for Bhutan’s land development planning, and when integrated with forest resource and carbon stock data, can provide consistent forest cover and resource figures for international reporting.

Photo: Bhutanese foresters cluster around two laptops. One screen shows a map, the other shows a picture of lush forest.
Bhutanese foresters use Google Earth Engine to locate and identify causes of change in their country. Forest Service photo.