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Photo of Joep Luijten

Battle Maps
In the war of words, sometimes a picture can win the day.

It was the case of the dueling maps. At a recent court hearing, NRDC lawyers contested the Navy's new "active" sonar system, which would have harmed thousands of whales, dolphins, and seals by generating unbearable underwater noise -- and violated three separate environmental laws in the process. During the trial, the National Marine Fisheries Service, which supported the Navy plan, produced a map that supposedly showed where the sonar would be deployed.

NRDC attorney Michael Jasny immediately saw how misleading the map actually was. "It grossly misrepresented the area of ocean involved because it was based on a map projection for sea navigation charts," he says. By using that particular method, the Fisheries Service managed to visually compress the affected ocean areas, making them look small compared to the rest of the Pacific. So Jasny called on NRDC's Geographic Information Systems (GIS) manager, Joep Luijten (pronounced Yoop Loyten). "Joep produced a map that represented the area in its true size -- more than 14 million square miles of ocean, four times the size of the United States," Jasny says. Luijten's map, he adds, made a "huge difference" to NRDC's case: The court put a temporary stop to the Navy's sonar activities.

The documents that the 33-year-old Luijten produces don't resemble your father's road atlas: They're highly specialized and often densely packed with information. "My maps are used for our purposes -- lobbying Congress, convincing a court," he says. Creating them is only the final step of what can be days, weeks, and even months of laborious research that allows him, to, say, create a three-dimensional map of areas that might be flooded by a dam project. Gathering enough information to design such a map for a proposed hydroelectric project on northern Guatemala's Usumacinta River proved especially difficult. "I finally had to go there myself," Luijten says. NRDC's BioGems campaign will use the resulting maps to show people what vegetation and habitat will be lost if the dam is built -- information the developers don't want anyone to have.

Luijten grew up on an 80-acre cattle and vegetable farm in rural Holland, but when corporate agribusiness and government policy began driving small Dutch farms out of existence, his parents urged him to set his sights beyond meat and potatoes. He first came to the United States in 1993 as an exchange student at the University of Florida. Six years later, he had earned a doctorate there in agricultural and biological engineering. Luijten, however, had no desire to lead an academic's life. "I wanted to work on real-world projects that are useful and can be applied," he says. A few months after leaving school, he started working at NRDC's Washington, D.C., office.

His work has had a dramatic impact. To help NRDC predict where petroleum companies would likely want to drill, he's created maps that detail oil and natural gas reserves on public lands in the Rocky Mountain states.

Luijten emphasizes that it's not so much the information but the medium that makes his work powerful. "In the real world, you often have only a couple of minutes to get your point across to decision makers," he says. "In those cases, a map can be more helpful than a 30-page document."
-- Elliott Negin

Photo: Drake Sorey

OnEarth. Summer 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council