Environmental studies student mapping trails at Allegany State Park

Jonathan Heck on the trail





This summer, one environmental studies student is using his time to map trails in hopes of someday becoming a land surveyor.


Jonathan Heck, a junior, has taken on a summer internship in geographic information systems at Allegany (N.Y.) State Park, and spends each day working outdoors. His main job is to hike the many trails that wind their way through the park and collect data points to be used for trailhead mapping


For Heck, the opportunity to hike all day in search of picturesque and interesting viewpoints to map is invaluable. Since beginning his internship, Heck has discovered waterfalls and several rock formations.


"I chose this area because it's so scenic, and it gets me outside," he said.


Originally from Pittsburgh, Heck said he also lived on a Wisconsin farm throughout his high school years, where he developed a love for being outside. He chose to attend college in Bradford to be close to forests.


A typical day for Heck at Allegany State Park involves about four miles of hiking in search of scenic areas with a portable GPS in hand to track data points. Allegany State Park covers about 60,000 acres, and Heck covers trails in every area of the park. The data points he collects are sent to a database within Allegany State Park and are then used to make new trailhead maps.


At the head of a short trail leading to a waterfall, Heck prepares his portable GPS and waits for a few satellites to pick up his signal so he can start the data collection. Once the satellites pick up, Heck starts the GPS to make the first point. Each step he takes on the trail creates new points on the GPS, and by the time he reaches the waterfall, an outline of the trail has formed on the screen.


Once at the waterfall, Heck is free to explore the surroundings for any other points of interest. As an intern, he has learned more than just mapping skills, and now knows a lot about the plants that inhabit the forest. Heck can identify what is edible, poisonous or soothing to the skin. He points out some wood sorrel, an edible plant that resembles a cloverleaf and tastes like a raspberry.


Heck is also able to pursue some of his personal hobbies through the internship. A budding mycologist on the side, Heck is somewhat of an amateur expert on mushrooms and keeps a book in his backpack that identifies the many mushrooms that populate the forest. Although it's not a part of his official job, Heck has discovered several varieties of mushrooms during his time on the trails. 


The internship has taught Heck the value of freedom in a job he really likes. His supervisors trust him to collect data points for maps on his own and largely leave him to his own devices, unless he has questions. A walk to a trail to see if it has anything scenic can turn into hours of hiking as Heck discovers interesting points that are as yet unmapped. 




Heck said: "I have a lot of freedom here. It's the best of both worlds - I get to hike and do computer stuff. With the maps, my purpose is to find scenic areas, and that makes my job fun."


When he's not mapping data points of various trails, Heck is responsible for mapping other areas of the park. Earlier this year, Allegany State Park opened 15 new rental cottages at the Bova Trail in the Red House area. Because the electrical lines are not yet mapped, Heck will be responsible for finding and collecting their data points.


He was inspired to pursue an internship with Allegany State Park after taking a few GIS courses at Pitt-Bradford with Dr. Tami Wells, a biological and health sciences and computational sciences faculty member. Heck said she wrote him a recommendation letter and urged him to take the internship after he expressed interest in GIS.


Wells said working at Allegany State Park in a hands-on environment will help propel Heck in the field because he is surrounded by so many professionals who are able to train him. Students didn't work with handheld GPS units in her class, Wells said, so working at the park gives him the opportunity to use different kinds of tools. When school starts again in the fall, Heck will be able to train a new class of GIS students.


While students learn quite a bit in class from terminology, software and types of equipment, it's important they seek answers from outside sources to adapt to the constantly changing technologies in GIS. Skills students learn in GIS are constantly building, and students do that on their own, Wells said.


"That's exactly what Jonathan did," Wells said. "He really pushes himself and challenges himself outside the classroom." 


Although Heck spends his time mapping the trails alone, Wells said becoming good at GIS depends on working with others and applying critical thinking, something she said Heck excelled at as a student.


"He is the kind of person that you want as a student at your university. He's a leader, he communicates well to others. And as far as Allegany State Park, they will be really pleased with his skills and his ability to sort out projects and do mapping for just a number of applications that they have in any field. He's a great guy, and I'm really proud of him."


Wells said she wants strong skills in GIS to become common and said the best way to get there is to apply the skills Heck is learning from his internship. Because technology within GIS changes so rapidly, every job is different. However, learning the foundation of GIS skills will take a student far in the field. She said Pitt-Bradford is the right place to adapt these skills.


"I just think Pitt-Bradford is sitting in a perfect spot for collaboration with industry leaders, state parks and national forests. At Pitt-Bradford, you're right there for the study sites," she said.