To say that snowmobiling is a popular winter activity in upstate New York is an understatement. The area north of Interstate 90 is at equal or higher latitude compared with that of the Canadian province of Ontario. Western New York, in particular, is ideal for anyone who enjoys winter sports since it is sandwiched between the lake-effect snow factories of Lake Erie and LakeOntario.
It was the state’s estimated 11,000 miles of snowmobile trails–and the fact they need to be mapped and marked for navigation and safety–that inspired a trio of surveyors from western New York last year to form a trail-mapping service called Endless Trails (www.endlesstrailsusa.com). Even though the venture began as a way to combine surveying expertise with winter fun, they discovered that doing the job right has not been child’s play–it requires the type of advanced GPS and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology that they use in their core businesses.
“Like everything else, this just kind of happened,” says Steve Hubertus of Stephen J. Hubertus Land Surveyors in Hornell, N.Y. In 2003, during a particularly rough winter, Hubertus and his friend Jim Ball of Wellsville-based James Ball Land Surveyors bought utility snowmobiles to help them get around for their surveying work. While using the new machines, they discovered that recreational snowmobiling would probably be fun, and Ball suggested that Hubertus join him and his son Jason in the activity. But there was no map of AlleganyCounty snowmobile trails. So Hubertus, Ball and another friend, Chuck Hathaway, who works for the New York State Department of Transportation, Region No. 6, set out to develop a county trail map with funding through the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation’s (OPRHP) Snowmobile Trail Grant Program. That marked the origin of Endless Trails, which consists of the three surveyors, Jason Ball and Christopher Barr, who also works for Hubertus’ firm.
In the tradition of renowned New York conservationist Teddy Roosevelt, the existence of the grant program and the politically active New York State Snowmobile Association (NYSSA) indicates how popular snowmobiling is there. The 12,000-member association–an umbrella organization of clubs throughout the state–handles information such as trail mapping, and also obtains funding for trail maintenance through the OPRHP, based largely upon information provided by the clubs. So the resources exist for classifying and properly mapping and marking trails in various areas, whether they are a section of the state trail corridor or a local trail that might traverse part of a landowner’s property.
One OPRHP initiative is to develop and map all snowmobile trails with GPS. Funding for trail maintenance is based on mileage, and mileage accuracy is increasingly important, making the use of GPS essentially mandatory. In 2005, the NYSSA launched a Trail GPS/GIS program to assist clubs in providing the NYSSA with trail information. The surveying trio does not need to be educated on the use of GPS for mapping trails–Hubertus has conducted seminars on the use of GPS at a local outdoor sporting goods store–but discovered that a need exists for precise surveying work using advanced equipment. Local economies and even the state’s tourism industry as a whole benefit from the availability of GIS-based snowmobile trail maps during the winter months.
“A lot of the maps are available through local snowmobile dealers and different points of interest where you might stop and get gas or food,” notes Hubertus. “We are basically creating a trail that you, as a snowmobiler not familiar with our area, can come to the area, find a map, utilize the map, go off, and ride. We also designate on our maps where there are food, lodging, gasoline, supplies and safety/aid stations. It’s very critical to us to make sure that the snowmobiler who’s unfamiliar with our trails is safe and can comfortably navigate the trails.”
A Laborious Process
The use of GIS is particularly useful for marking local trails that cross private property. Rather than ride across or set up a sign on a given homeowner’s property, it helps the trio to know who lives there so they can call ahead and explain what they are planning to do. A GIS program allows the trio to create an initial shape file that includes county tax assessment information, to which they can refer in the field to determine who lives at a particular location.
Hubertus says using the type of handheld GPS unit that is available at many retail stores to capture data for GIS did not provide the necessary accuracy–a fact that Hathaway, the GIS expert, discovered when trying to develop Endless Trails’ first maps using the data from the handheld units.
Hubertus recalls how time-consuming it was just to consolidate the various pieces of data into one shape file using GPS data from a handheld unit. “I did a 40-mile trail here in SteubenCounty, for instance,” he says. “In order to get it into a shape file and get it sent in for approval by the state–this was a brand new trail–I ran this through two software packages three times each. I probably spent close to two eight-hour days on my own.”
Upgrading Productivity And Accuracy
Enough was enough. Hubertus and Ball had an existing business relationship with Roy Boyd of Boyd Instrument and Supply Co. in Horsham, Penn., and spoke with him about what they needed to map the snowmobile trails. Because the area that they were mapping is quite hilly–typically up to 2,000 feet in elevation with valleys dropping to 900 feet–they needed equipment that would provide better accuracy than GPS alone. And since they would be plotting a tremendous amount of data, it would help if the data were more portable than with a handheld, over-the-counter GPS unit. Ball relates how he and Jason Ball, who works at his surveying firm, took a handheld unit and a laptop into the field to map a trail, and had to stop every 10 miles to download the GPS data into the laptop.
Hubertus had seen an advertisement for a commercial-capability handheld GPS receiver equipped with an integrated electronic compass, a digital camera and dual-constellation technology, meaning it could receive signals from both GPS and Glonass satellites, which provide better coverage on north-facing slopes. “I’m looking at this thing, and it was almost perfect for what we wanted,” says Hubertus. Boyd gave Hubertus and Ball a demonstration of the Topcon GMS-2 unit, and they were encouraged to find they could also use a software program called TopPad–ESRI’s ArcPad with a Topcon tool bar that works in shape files. “That eliminates working through a lot of different programs,” notes Hubertus.
The two contacted Hathaway about their new purchase, and let the GIS expert try it out. “Steve and Jim gave it to me to play with and see what I could do, to see what makes it tick and not tick,” says Hathaway. “I have a couple of buddies here in SteubenCounty who gave me permission to ride close to 1,000 acres of fields and streams and roads and gullies.” Hathaway first uploaded aerial photos from the New York State Office for Technology’s New York State GIS Clearinghouse and, while riding into a canyon and against a few north-facing slopes with heavy hemlock tree cover, verified his locations on the aerial maps using the new unit and an external PGA-5 antenna.
The antenna can be mounted on a utility terrain vehicle or work snowmobile. The antenna and a BR-1 Beacon Receiver that accesses the Coast Guard Beacon real-time correction service provide Endless Trails with higher data accuracy than with the handheld unit alone because the system utilizes a second correction service in addition to the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) signal correction. Boyd notes that this combination allows the trio to achieve sub-meter accuracy on its trail maps. “From a trail aspect, it’s a lot tighter than you need, but it’s better to have it that way than the other way,” Hubertus says.
They really noticed a quantum leap in productivity from the portability of their collected location data as they mapped Allegany, Steuben and Delaware county trails from September 2006 to April 2007. “As long as we had an SD [secure digital] memory card and we were getting good satellite coverage, it was nothing for us to utilize the unit in whatever conditions we were in,” says Ball. “I think one day we had a 70-mile trail location.” Hathaway adds, “We are able to gather that information and put it right onto a card. You can put another card in and keep riding.”
With the handheld unit they used previously, he adds, he could download the data from the unit to a laptop computer, but then he needed to download translator software to convert the data to a shape file. In addition, the other handheld unit did not allow them to upload county tax assessment information, so it was difficult, if not impossible, to determine whose private property might be on or along a trail during the mapping process. They rode the trails and logged location data with an all-terrain vehicle, utility terrain vehicle and snowmobile, and walked the trail on private property when necessary. “In some areas where the landowner had issues, we also had to walk the trail to get a location, and each individual landowner had a different set of specifications for us,” says Hathaway.
Endless Trails’ jump in both accuracy and productivity allowed the trio to map 600 miles of trails for 13 clubs in three counties prior to the start of the winter of 2007-2008. The accuracy obtained with the new unit vs. the over-the-counter handhelds “is not even in the same league–it’s like comparing a bicycle with a Harley,” Hubertus says.
“With the TopPad, we could do the data review in the field if we needed to, whereas if you’re using another unit that has to be translated from the native language into a shape file, you can’t do queries in the field–you have to put it into a computer and do the work out of the unit,” and this reduces productivity immensely, adds Hathaway.
Endless Trails does not necessarily have definite plans for growth, but Hubertus does see plenty of potential for the new venture outside its own backyard. Even if the trio does not personally map trails of all types anywhere in the nation, it is possible to train land managers on the proper use of GPS equipment. “It’s not just snowmobile trails; we’ve mapped hiking trails, and if anybody has a trail and wants us to locate it, we can do that,” he says. “New Hampshire, I believe, has 3,000 miles of roads and 6,000 miles of snowmobile trails. We could go up there and educate those people on how to use this stuff; there are many different things that we can do.”