Montana State University

MSU researcher avoids Afghan dangers by working remotely

March 3, 2009 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

An Afghan man plants seedlings to help rehabilitate his country's pistachio trees. (Photo courtesy of Henry Shovic).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Henry Shovic first went to Afghanistan in 2005 to search for wild pistachio trees. He now scours Afghanistan from the sky, looking for the best places to build dams.

Working from home these days because of the danger, he sees remote sensing as a much healthier occupation, said Shovic who has been affiliated with MSU's ecology department since retiring last fall from the U.S. Forest Service. His specialty is soils and landscape geography, data analysis and map making.

Thirty years of remote sensing experience -- often in national parks and foreign countries -- have given him the ability to look at satellite images and know what he's seeing, Shovic said. He can tell the difference between pistachio trees and a flock of sheep, for example. He knows if trees are alive or burned. He can tell when timber smugglers are trucking pistachio trees from Afghanistan into neighboring Pakistan. He can see streams running and gullies eroding.

"This project fits me," Shovic said.

When Shovic first went to Afghanistan, he worked outside of Kabul on a project for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Shovic said the United Nations, Afghanistan government and Afghan farmers all told him that most of the wild pistachio trees in the country were gone. He wanted to see for himself, however, so rode around Afghanistan and compared his findings on the ground with satellite images. He found that theft, grazing sheep, military maneuvers and people harvesting firewood had taken their toll, but pistachio trees were growing more widely than he expected.

Shovic returned to Afghanistan that fall to further assess the situation and introduce a tree-planting program. Flying around the country in a U.N. charter plane, he carried GPS equipment and cameras to photograph from the plane. He then encouraged the Afghan people to plant pistachio trees on a staggered schedule on terraces. He urged them to protect the trees with fences and look for other sources of firewood.

The idea was to help Afghanistan rely more on pistachios for income and less on poppies and opium, Shovic said. The trees themselves would help reclaim land that has been overgrazed, pulverized by soldiers and trampled by the "pointy little hooves" of sheep.

"There's no shortage of sheep there. Afghanistan is carpeted with sheep." said John Winnie, who worked in Afghanistan three times during 2007 and 2008. Winnie is an adjunct professor in ecology at MSU.

Winnie traveled to the Wakhan Corridor of northeast Afghanistan to study Marco Polo argali sheep for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He has no plans to return because he has finished most of his research, but he added that the Wakhan Corridor is much more stable than the area where Shovic worked.

Shovic, after making two trips to Afghanistan, said he would've traveled to Afghanistan a third time, but the hotel where he planned to attend an international conference was bombed. Instead of presenting his pistachio findings in Kabul, Shovic stayed home and sent the information to Afghanistan.

Besides the hotel bombing that foiled his third trip, someone shot a rocket at him during his second trip, Shovic said.

"Winston Churchill said there is nothing more satisfying than being shot at and missed," Shovic said. "But enough is enough."

Shovic is now working on his fifth Afghan project, but he is doing it from Bozeman. Working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to improve Afghan water resources, Shovic said his team has identified more than 240 places where small dams could be located. Using satellite imagery, existing maps, ground data from Army specialists and his own experience there, Shovic estimates conditions, restoration potential, population benefits and accessibility for each watershed in the project. He will then use make recommendations that fit Army and Afghan priorities.

Since no one will have to repeat his evaluation on the ground, this work will save both Afghan and military lives, Shovic said.

"Mine too," he added.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or