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Oregon Environmentalists Use Google Trekker To Track Down Conservation Support

Chandra LeGue and David Calahan are facing a bit of a problem. They’re at the Sundown Trailhead near Southern Oregon's Applegate Valley. And they’re standing in the middle of a cloud.

Normally hiking in foggy weather isn’t a big deal. But on this day LeGue wanted it to be clear so the Google Trekkerapparatus she’s carrying on her back can photograph the trail.

LeGue is a field coordinator with Oregon Wild, which was chosen by Google to take the Trekker out and map places not accessible by their Street View vehicles. The idea is that people will be able to virtually navigate mapped trails from the comfort of home.

Google Trekker gave a different idea to LeGue, Calahan and their fellow conservationists: That if more people have virtual experiences with these wild places, there will be more support for protecting them from logging crews, mine operators and road builders.

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The 40-pound Trekker is large and rather awkward to hike with, LeGue says.

“It's sort of like an external frame backpack, but then it's got a box strapped to it that has batteries... And then it’s got this two-foot pole, basically, with this big camera on top,” she says.

Actually the Trekker has 15 cameras in a basketball-sized globe, designed to shoot a 360-degree image as she walks.

The fog would definitely hamper the view. But the group decides to push on. The clouds could lift at any moment.

“Google’s interest is to document the Earth, so they loan it out to people who have an interest in also showcasing beautiful places,” LeGue says. “And so we have been taking it to places we want to protect on O&C lands in Western Oregon.”

The O&C lands are named for the Oregon & California Railroad, which once owned them. Half the timber receipts on O&C Lands go directly to local counties. Consequently the pressure is on to allow more logging as the government updates how those forestlands are managed.

As the group climbs toward the ridgeline, LeGue falls behind on the trail. She uses a Bluetooth remote control, about the size of a cellphone, to turn the camera on and off. The ideal is to try to capture human-free images of the landscape.

David Calahan gives a running commentary as the slippery trail winds up the hillside.

“It doesn’t get any less steep for a little bit, but pretty soon we’re going to be in Shangri-La,” he assures his hiking companions.

Calahan has been working with the Applegate Trails Association to build a 40-mile ridgeline trail network through the terrain, which is governed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. If they’re successful, the Sundown Trail would be part of that network.

The area is rich in biodiversity. Birds chirp overhead, dozens of different kinds of wildflowers bloom along the path, and this is known habitat for the rare northern spotted owl and Pacific fisher.

The area is also rich in history. The Sundown Trail’s namesake was a nearby abandoned mine. Hiking here, Calahan imagines a worker walking out of the mine after a back-breaking day, just in time to watch the sun dip behind the mountains.

“I could see him looking at a chunk of ore saying, ‘Is that gold, or is that the orange color from the setting sun?’” Calahan muses.

As the hikers pushes upward, the sun remains hidden. The eerie silhouettes of towering trees appear and vanish in the dense fog.

LeGue and the Google Trekker catch up with the Calahan as they crest the hill.

There’s only a wall of white, where there should be a spectacular vista of land Calahan calls the Wellington Wildlands.

“The Wildlands is keeping her secrets,” he says.

The views aren’t there, but the fog shows a side of these Northwest forestlands few witness. LeGue says documenting these places with Google Trekker helps more people get a taste for that experience.

“Just drawing attention to fact there are really great places people can visit, will get them to get out there, enjoy them and care about what's happening to them,” she says.

For the longest time the Wellington Wildands went unnoticed – and that was a good thing, according to Calahan.

“It's like this gem, this jewel that got overlooked by the miners, loggers, farmers," he says. "Why didn't they punch a road in there and get that old growth out of there in the bottom? It keeps missing the ax.”

But now, he says, drawing broader attention to the Wildlands will help keep that ax at bay.

It’s unknown how long it will take for the Western Oregon maps to come online. Google did not respond to an interview request.

Interactive Google Trekker trail maps are already available at spots along the Columbia Gorge, including the Lost Lake Lakeshore Trail, the Rowena Plateau Trail, the Cooper Spur Trail and the Oneonta Gorge Trail.

Copyright 2020 EarthFix. To see more, visit .

<p>David Calahan (left) and Chandra LeGue (center) hike up a trail in Southern Oregon. LeGue is carrying the Google Trekker to photograph the sights.</p>

Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix


David Calahan (left) and Chandra LeGue (center) hike up a trail in Southern Oregon. LeGue is carrying the Google Trekker to photograph the sights.

<p>David Calahan of the Applegate Trails Association looks down a hill where a mining road once ran.</p>

Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix


David Calahan of the Applegate Trails Association looks down a hill where a mining road once ran.

<p>A Google Trekker camera array</p>

Jes Burns/OPB/EarthFix


A Google Trekker camera array

<p>David Calahan looks out over where the Wellington Wildlands should be visible.</p>

Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix


David Calahan looks out over where the Wellington Wildlands should be visible.

Jes Burns is a reporter for OPB's Science & Environment unit. Jes has a degree in English literature from Duke University and a master's degree from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communications.