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Remote sensing rockstar

Kass Green, BS ’74 Forestry

Image of Kass Green

Kass Green, BS ’74 Forestry. 

Photo by Mathew Burciaga.

Throughout her pioneering career, Kass Green has always subscribed to the theory that you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

Over the past four decades, Green has championed and advanced the application of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote-sensing technologies to identify, quantify, and monitor natural resources so that they can be better managed, especially as the effects of climate change intensify. “These technologies are critical because they allow us to monitor and model change over time and build adaptation strategies,” she says.

A sense of place

Green attended UC Berkeley during a time of change and adaptation as well, graduating just as the College of Natural Resources was created in 1974. She remembers fellow forestry majors grumbling that the new environmental science degree was “forestry light.” But she credits her mentor and future PhD advisor, Henry Vaux, then dean of the School of Forestry and Conservation, for having the vision to merge the too-small-to-survive schools of forestry and agriculture. “Hank was a strategist, a big thinker, and an inspiring man,” she says. “He was shout-out brilliant and had high expectations for the new college.”

Following graduation, Green started her career as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., with the environmental organization Friends of the Earth. “I realized that when we were making policy, the arguments were not about the quantity of resources, which was the focus of economics, but about the location of resources—about place,” she says. “It was about the designation of this wilderness area or that scenic river. To study policy, I needed to study place.” Green earned a master’s degree in Wildland Policy and Economics from the University of Michigan in 1981. She then returned to Berkeley, completing all the coursework for a PhD in Wildland Resource Policy & Economics, before she was lured away to write a book on using phenoxy herbicides in forest management for the Council on Economic Priorities.

In 1985, while she and her husband, Eugene Forsburg, BS ’75 Conservation of Natural Resources, were working for a consulting firm, they recognized the great potential of the newly emerging fields of GIS and remote sensing. Green turned to Russell Congalton, then an assistant professor at Berkeley and an expert on remote sensing, for the instruction that would change her life.

“The minute I discovered remote sensing, I realized that’s where I belong,” she says. “I’m a spatial thinker. I have an innate ability to see things in imagery and analytically draw more information out.”

Leading the field

In 1988, Green and Forsburg founded Pacific Meridian Resources, one of the industry’s first and most successful geospatial services firms. “No one had ever mapped wildland fuels or entire national forests and parks using data from the Landsat satellite program,” she says. “We were always years ahead of the competition.”

By any measure, Green’s subsequent career and contributions have been extraordinary. With Congalton and Mark Tukman, another expert, Green authored books that are considered foundational in the fields of GIS and remote sensing. She co-founded and chaired the Department of the Interior’s Landsat Advisory Group, which advocated for the continued free public distribution of Landsat imagery. “We now have over 50 years of worldwide Landsat observations,” she says. “It’s incredible; it’s our global standard for monitoring change over time.”

The couple sold the firm in 2000, and Green launched Kass Green & Associates three years later. Since then, her work creating detailed vegetation maps has taken her around the world, from a raft on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, to the crater of Haleakalā on Maui, to agricultural fields in Ethiopia, and even to the remote islands of American Samoa.

But she’s especially proud of a project closer to home. Working with Tukman’s firm and several agencies and nonprofits, Green has built programs that use airborne imagery, lidar (light detection and ranging), and other tools to create fine-scale vegetation and wildfire hazard and risk maps for counties around the Bay Area and central California. Among other results, the research highlighted the need to reduce highly flammable fuels from the landscape, including eucalyptus and other fuels that act as ladders for flames to climb from the ground to the tree canopy.

Kass Green, Eric Romero, and Iryna Dronova discussing maps

From left: Kass Green, graduate student Eric Romero, and Associate Professor Iryna Dronova discuss data maps at UC Berkeley’s Geospatial Innovation Facility.

Photo by Mathew Burciaga.

Green, named a “rock star of remote sensing” by the geospatial magazine Directions, won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing in 2016. In 2020, she earned the NASA and U.S. Geological Survey’s William T. Pecora Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions toward understanding the Earth, informing decision makers, supporting disaster responses, and educating new scientists. “I’m especially honored by the Pecora Award,” she says. “It’s the highest award in my field.”

Giving back

Remaining active with her alma mater throughout her career, Green was a member of the College’s advisory board for 23 years and served as its first woman chair. She’s been impressed with the school’s evolution and the vision and leadership that have made it “one of the top universities in the world for environmental studies,” she says.

“Gene and I wouldn’t be where we are now without this College. It taught us how to think,” she says. In 2005, they made a gift to launch Berkeley’s Geospatial Innovation Facility, and they have also pledged an estate gift to endow a chair in measuring and monitoring resources. “Remote sensing and GIS are great career paths for future Rausser students,” she says. “The field is always innovating. The jobs are plentiful, and with climate change and population growth, the critical need for better information and imaging of the landscape will continue to expand exponentially.”