Right-hand point breaks and natural harbors are the stuff of wet dreams for surfers and real-estate developers in Baja California. So when former pro surfer turned cartographer Zach Plopper of WildCoast wants to survey the rugged terrain of the 850-mile peninsula, he turns to Google Earth to get the rundown.

According to Plopper, Google Earth is rapidly becoming an essential tool in the conservationist's arsenal. WildCoast, a nonprofit environmental group focused on Baja's coastal zone, is among those leading the charge.

Google Earth 5.0 has the potential to make Wild Coast's job easier. Its tiny staff of 12 has many miles to cover, providing technical assistance to Mexican conservation groups and wilderness advocates in Baja's hinterland.

Baja is about the length of California, but without the U.S. state's vast number of people, cities and cars. Remote lagoons and beaches lie at the end of bone-jarring dirt roads, which carve through a desert wilderness leading to isolated fishing camps and villages.

The region appears to be devoid of people, but Google Earth 5.0 reveals otherwise. Dotting the landscape are signs of human habitation, roads, fishing camps and signs of bigger things to come. Much of it is built far from the prying eyes of environmental groups and agencies entrusted to protect the landscape. A biological hotspot, Baja has six natural parks designated as federally protected habitat, though in reality large sections of the region are open for business.

Developers, government officials and conservationists have been in conflict recently over Baja's fate. At issue is whether the peninsula should remain in desolate isolation, home to hardy settlers and wintering gray whales, or become a hub for affluent vacationers in search of beachfront property.

Access to the ocean is considered a birthright in an arid region inhabited by Mexican ranchers, farmers and fishermen who look to the sea for their sustenance and the cooler weather it provides. Some fear that resource-based lifestyle would be compromised if developers are given free reign.

So when Plopper wants to influence policymakers about Baja's future, he fires up Google Earth. Idle speculation is put aside. Plopper can zoom over contested hotspots, providing glaring examples of the impact development has had on the landscape. "We have a bird's eye view of the coastline," he says.

A high-speed data network has additional benefits. WildCoast staffers can confer with Mexican colleagues hundreds of miles away. Using online chatting and teleconferencing in tandem with Google Earth makes it a powerful and convenient tool for collaboration. "So we're all on the same page," Plopper says.

Due to its remoteness, accurate information on Baja has been hard to obtain and even more expensive to acquire. "The program represents a significant savings to us," Plopper says, adding that time and money spent flying overland to obtain aerial images had put a dent in the organization's finances.

Instead, resources can now be directed toward building an accurate inventory of natural resources and land-use patterns. The communal boundaries of traditional fishing villages, for example, or the flora and fauna contained within watersheds, seldom appear on conventional maps.

Google Earth 5.0 began as a joke, when the renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earl quipped the program ought to be dubbed "Google Dirt" for excluding three-quarters of the planet's surface. Google engineers took the jab to heart, though, and sprung into action.

Google joined forces with NASA, NOAA and the Scripps Oceanographic Institute, among others, to simulate the Earth's vast ocean depths, says Google Earth program manager Steve Miller.

According to Miller, Google Earth is "democratizing data," or making information readily available to ordinary users. Information that took decades to compile can now be viewed from the desktop within minutes.

Browsers can now dive below the ocean surface without getting wet, virtually visiting locations like the Mariana Trench or reading captions uploaded by research scientists. And since of much of the underwater realm remains unknown and unmapped, with less than 1 percent set aside for marine conservation, Google hopes the program will inspire browsers to further explore the ocean's uncharted depths.

Related on MNN: Google Earth and environmental activism.

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