I plan to expand my toolkit for environmental management and find new ways to map critical landscapes for conservation and stewardship. –Ross Donihue 

Photos by Ross Donihue

On the Farallon Islands, 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, Ross Donihue ’11 wore a helmet to protect his head from the pecking—and the deposits—of some 250,000 birds that nest on the island each year. Although the Farallons nominally belong to the City and County of San Francisco, in truth they are ruled by the wildlife—the birds, seals, and salamanders, as well as the whales that pass during their seasonal migration and the sharks drawn by the prospect of a tasty seal lunch. 

As one of the country’s 63 National Wildlife Refuges, the islands are closed to the public and the only human inhabitants are researchers from Point Blue Conservation Science and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and—for a time—Ross Donihue. 

Donihue grew up in Waterville, Maine, where, he says, “I spent every minute I could hiking, canoeing, and spending time outside.” His parents taught at nearby Colby College, so he was well versed in the advantages of a liberal arts college. He chose Macalester for those advantages, plus “new energy, new opportunities and a multicultural environment.” 

Donihue majored in environmental studies and geography—and found his niche in mapmaking. 

“Maps allow us to visualize data and tell stories. You can take data that on the surface has little meaning and use maps to organize that data and style it using visual cues like color and typography. A map can transform the raw data into meaningful information and a story rises out of it,” says Donihue. 

Following graduation, his cartography skills led to a three-month internship at National Geographic in Washington, D.C., after which he was hired by their digital development group, where he created infographics and interactive maps for visual storytelling.

After National Geographic, Donihue taught two semesters of conservation mapping as part of a CIEE study abroad program in Monteverde, Costa Rica. At the same time he and a colleague, Marty Schnure, founded the organization Maps for Good, in part to promote conservation. As explained on their website, www.mapsforgood.org

“At Maps for Good, we think about a map not just as a tool for navigation, but as a canvas for telling a story. Conservation initiatives need fresh, beautiful visuals to stand out from the crowd and engage new audiences. We create maps that tell their story, showcase their impact, and connect people with wild places.” 

Donihue is an exceptionally talented nature photographer and those photos play a starring role in making the case for conservation. Although the company started by producing beautiful print maps, they also make rich interactive maps that tell conservation stories in new and engaging ways. 

“On an interactive map, you can zoom in for detail or out for perspective,” he explains. “You can click on icons for more information about endemic species, see photos, watch videos, or explore an immersive 360-degree panorama.” 

Donihue and Schnure spent the better part of a year fundraising for their first big project—a map of the future Patagonia National Park. They were awarded  a National Geographic Young Explorers grant and gained the support of Conservacion Patagonica (the non-profit creating the park) and 210 Kickstarter backers. 

“People often ask me, ‘Hasn’t everything already been mapped?’” says Donihue, but the answer is no, not the way he does it. “With every mapping project Marty and I make a point to go to the places we’re mapping. In the field we form relationships with the land managers and local stakeholders and explore the landscapes to understand what makes them unique. We then create maps using this knowledge and experience to help others understand a place and connect with it.” 

Donihue and Schnure first explored Patagonia on foot. Patagonia, shared by Chile and Argentina, is the southern end of South America and comprises the southern section of the Andes Mountains. There are glaciers, mountain peaks, icefields, and bone-chilling rivers and streams to ford. The local fauna includes Chilean flamingos, pumas, and the guanaco, which resembles a llama, as well as birds such as the Andean Condor. 

To take in the landscape and the cultural history, the two hiked and camped for three months, descending to a town about every two weeks for supplies. Using GPS they were able to accurately place the trails, river crossings, and mountain summits, building datasets as they went along. Turning those datasets into beautiful maps took place later during long hours at computers back in California, home base for a time. 

Kris Tompkins, president of Conservacion Patagonica as well as an early supporter, is quoted on the Maps for Good website on the effectiveness of the maps: 

“Maps for Good produced beautiful and compelling maps for the future Patagonia National Park. When the maps arrived at the park this season, they immediately became a huge hit, transforming how visitors and partners understood and explored the park. They have proved an invaluable tool for us.” 

The Farallon Islands were the second large-scale project. Donihue and Schnure partnered with NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), the nonprofit Point Blue Conservation Science, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to tell the story of the islands and explore the status of marine health there. 

The projects are exhilarating, but anyone tempted to romanticize Donihue’s life of adventure should consider the fuller picture. 

Permits to come onto the islands are rarely issued. And if you are approved, it means a six-hour sailboat ride on seas that are often very rough. Donihue, who suffers from motion sickness, made two trips there on a boat that delivered supplies to researchers. A third trip was aborted due to perilous seas, resulting in hours of misery, only to land back at San Francisco. 

Upon arriving at the Farallons, there was no suitable place to dock, so the cargo of supplies—and Donihue and Schnure—left the sailboat in a Zodiac inflatable boat, which was then hoisted out of the water by a crane and deposited on land. Once there with the scientists, they gathered data, sometimes crawling through narrow openings into island caves, always maintaining a respectful distance from the wildlife. 

Though they relish their time in the field, Donihue and Schnure respect the demands of the lands through which they travel. After days of hiking and camping in Patagonia, they were eager to summit Cerro Kristine, one of the park’s highest peaks, but turned back after facing heavy snowpack and miles of loose scree knowing that, alone in the backcountry, even a twisted ankle would put both of them at risk. 

Maps for Good has several new projects in the works. The founders are being selective about what they take on right now because Schnure has signed on with the Wilderness Society and Donihue has begun a master’s program in the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. However, they are continuing both the product line (maps) and their consulting services. 

“I’m excited to join the Yale community this fall and continue my work in conservation cartography,” says Donihue. “I will build on my mapping work that started at Macalester and join an incredible class of environmental leaders. I plan to expand my toolkit for environmental management and find new ways to map critical landscapes for conservation and stewardship.”

National Geographic recently named Donihue and Schnure among their 20 Under 30: The Next Generation of National Park Leaders, a list of young scientists, filmmakers, musicians, educators, and activists who put their passion to work for national parks.

September 26 2016

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