In 1988 Charles Convis wrote a proposal to develop a Conservation Computer Support Foundation. The proposal was shared with IUCN, WWF and the University of California. The foundation would focus on low-tech approaches and a services-oriented ethic designed to assist small grass-roots organizations around the world. The initial funding requests were not successful, so Convis decided to proceed without funding and began to directly approach software and hardware vendors as a way to gain access to expensive technologies that could be donated to conservation groups. One of the earliest vendors was Esri, whose GIS software was becoming well-known in the resources world but whose retail price was out of reach of the non-profit community. Jack Dangermond in particular was deeply interested in the concept and in 1989 offered to help host and build this foundation.
Convis and Dangermond spent many evenings and weekends talking about conservation and technology, and how one builds a community and helps it to grow and thrive. Many of the lessons Dangermond learned in building Esri as a global business were shared as to how they might apply to building a community of conservation GIS enthusiasts. One of the first lessons was how critically important it was to get together in person, to be a physical community and build direct personal relationships.
In 1990 Convis began to invite anyone interested in Conservation and GIS to attend the Esri User Conference, waiving the conference fees and setting up backyard tents and potlucks to make it affordable. In 1991 enough conservation GIS people showed up to allow Convis to organize the first of many dedicated conservation GIS tracks at the Esri User Conference and the first “Conservation Users Special Interest Group” open meeting. As these community efforts took off, Convis continued to work on providing resources to non-profit groups such as technology donations, organizing and distributing donations of Esri software, training, books and data under what was and still is called the Esri Conservation Program.
The early successes of both the donation and community programs led Convis to re-write the conservation foundation proposal into an new charter in 1991, laying out the basic structure and mission of an international conservation support organization consisting of volunteers linked by email and internet, providing technology support and collaborating to help create standards for conservation GIS.
In 1992 the Conservation Special Interest Group grew to include over 60 member organizations, with close to 100 participants presenting 40 papers. This Conservation Group clearly filled a void and was also able to provide equipment and funds necessary for many conservation agencies to reach their goals with GIS and computer technology. At the 1993 Esri International User Conference – in which the Group doubled its participants and papers – it was determined that there was a need to convert the Group into an international consortium with its own independent organizational structure such as a non-profit association. Thus, the Conservation GIS Consortium (CGISC) was created. The Consortium provided GIS services to the conservation community and became instrumental in managing and administering several important GIS funding programs. Simultaneously, an internet discussion group called CONSGIS was created due to the support and efforts of Dr. Peter August and the University of Maryland. This discussion group was the precursor to the active SCGIS listserve community that we know and use today.
The Conservation GIS Consortium continued to thrive, and with grants from Esri, Hewlett-Packard, the Smithsonian, and five other hardware and software vendors, the Conservation Technology Support Program (CTSP) was created and launched in 1995. In addition, attendance at the Esri International User Conference continued to grow along with relationships and networks. As time passed, it became clear that there was a need for more formality and organization between the groups and programs that had been created.
In 1997, the International Society for Conservation GIS was created and hosted its first annual conference. The conference featured 16 authoritative and scientific papers covering a wide range of conservation GIS topics, and attracted almost 100 participants. From the poster session to the Sunday night campfire, the conference was a success in many ways. Perhaps most importantly, it was at this conference that the group formally agreed to form a non-profit organization. With the creation of an interim board of directors and the assignment of committee chairs, the Society for Conservation GIS (SCGIS) as we know it today was formed!
Tasked with developing the organization from nearly the ground up – from bylaws and fundraising to website development and creating support for international colleagues – the members of the newly created SCGIS had their hands full, but laid the foundation for the successful Society from which we continue to benefit. True to its initial goals, SCGIS continues to assist conservationists in using GIS and technology effectively and efficiently worldwide by encouraging and supporting open communication, networking, scholarships, and training.
In 2007, SCGIS celebrated its 20th annual conference with the theme “SCGIS Turns 20: A Look at the Past, Present, and Future of Conservation GIS” and produced its first annual report.