A geographer with more than geography on his mind

9/21/2007 7:00:00 AM

A quick snapshot into Scott Bassett's world, and why his work is important:

Think of the Marines storming a beach. Amphibious landing craft come crashing onto the sand. Screeching tanks pound like massive sledgehammers over the dunes. Through the hail of gunfire, Marines scramble everywhere for cover.

Or do they?

In Bassett's world, the entire reach-the-beach scenario is dramatically altered. In Bassett's world, information is power. In the pinpoint, precise world of GIS and computer mapping -- Bassett's research specialties – military maneuvers are now done completely differently.

Before Marines can even storm the beach at areas such as Camp Pendleton in southern California, orange traffic cones are strategically placed on the sand. The effort by eco-aware military forces is to minimize the impact of their maneuvers on wildlife.

Without people like Scott Bassett, who provide the Marines and Air Force with a GIS roadmap of information of what is where and at risk, and how perhaps to avoid it, this type of approach wouldn't be possible.

"People may not realize this, but areas like Camp Pendleton have become a sanctuary for endangered species," says Bassett, a 37-year-old assistant professor who is beginning his first year as a member of the Department of Geography. "Urban areas have grown all around them, while they've essentially remained the same. Through computer mapping and satellite imaging, we're able to help them look at what's off their installation, and how it might impact their activities.

"A lot of exciting things can happen. The Marines or the Air Force might decide that they need to do something with the (civilian) 'buffer' zones around their bases, and sometimes they'll purchase the land and then give it to an organization like the Nature Conservancy, to keep it open, which is a benefit to both the public, and any wildlife that might be threatened."

To Bassett, who comes to Nevada from the Desert Research Institute, where he was an assistant research professor, it's this unique intersection between computers and life, between numbers and art, between 25,000-foot satellite imaging and one-on-one human interaction, that makes his job so exciting.

"I really believe that research and teaching goes hand in hand," said Bassett, whose degrees range from a bachelor's in geography and anthropology and a master's in ecology from Utah State to a Doctorate in Design Degree in landscape architecture and environmental planning from Harvard's Graduate School of Design. "Students bring fresh ideas to everything they do. Some of their ideas can seem absolutely ridiculous, but the most ridiculous ideas can often bring you the most exciting research."

"Scott brings a new dimension to our department" added Scott Mensing, chair of the Department of Geography.  "He has a background in both geography and environmental planning and expands our offerings in the area of regional land use planning.  Scott's experience at DRI also strengthens our relationship with that institute.  He comes to us with an impressive research record and is already working on collaborations with a number of faculty in the department.  I know he is also excited to be in the classroom and we look forward to watching him develop his teaching skills.  The department is very excited to have had Scott join us."

As a researcher for DRI, Bassett has traveled the world. He has studied the military's groundwater impacts on the San Pedro River in Arizona and in Sonora, Mexico. He has mapped how migration from inland to the coast of Australia has had an impact there not unlike the pangs of development that were associated with California and the 1960s. And, he has measured how growth in Egypt has led to the displacement of an agrarian people, stressed fisheries and made the government wonder what happens when millions of tons of sand is mixed with the water of the nearby Sinai Peninsula.

"So much of it stems from growth," he says. "So the question becomes, 'What are the alternatives to growth ... or what is the best use of the land given what the society or region, or even in northern Nevada, what the city or town feels is important?'"

It's the diversity of the work, Bassett said, that intrigues him so much.

"I just love looking at a diverse range of issues," said Bassett, who counts as one of his specialties land use planning. "It's an interesting balance. Because by focusing on the salvation on something ... say one thing is endangered ... you might compromise something else. I tell my students all the time that, "You are here to get an education. If you don't use it to benefit your family or society, then you've wasted your time. I don't know why you're here.'"

So far, Bassett hasn't wasted much of his own time.

"The door here is always open," he said of his Mackay Science office. The avid kayaker and father of five, wearing jeans and T-shirt, smiled. "That's sort of my style: If I'm in my office, you're more than welcome to come on in."


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