Advances in Global Positioning Systems have led to fantastic changes in research techniques, recreation and helping lost hikers in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

National Park Service officials are planning two upcoming events about the technology: the first, a lecture about GPS basics; and the second, an outdoor session to put that knowledge into practice.

Scientists are now using GPS collars to track wild animals in the mountains, according to Policy and External Affairs Manager Lauren Newman. “We can actually see where mountain lions are moving around the park and what their use patterns are, as well as bobcats and anything else we’d like to track. So that gives us a lot of data about what the most utilized and important habitat areas are for animals,” says Newman.

Another exciting way GPS is helping scientists involves visitors who have certain cell phones and download an application to help in the hunt for destructive nonnative plant species.

“We have an iPhone application that will allow park visitors to GPS-tag different locations of invasive plant species, so we will be able to see in real time that we have an invasive plant outbreak in a certain area of the mountains based on the GPS coordinates that we’re getting from people on their phones out in the field,” says Newman.

The events will also highlight ways people have fun with GPS units in the park, such as the popular sport of geocaching where people use the technology to hide and find hidden containers full of trinkets to exchange. Some people also make their own maps with the help of GPS units, so that they can see exactly where they’ve been and return to cool places they find.

Park Ranger Mike Theune will be leading the events, and says GPS technology also helps keep people safe in the mountains. “One of the neat things with parks that have wide-range cell phone coverage is that people can use GPS and call us up and say, ‘Hey, I’m lost, but I have a GPS. Here I am.’ In the past, we never heard until a family member called because they didn’t show up on time. We can actually utilize GPS mapping programs like Google Maps and say they’re exactly here, and then relay that to search teams,” says Theune.

Theune also notes that people should never completely rely on GPS and cell phones because batteries sometimes run out, and the park’s mountainous geography sometimes prevents them from working.

“Especially in the Santa Monica Mountains, we sometimes have very high-walled canyons where you can’t get a satellite signal. It’s good to have, and understand how to use, but there are other tools in a toolbox that you need to be able to utilize,” says Theune, who adds that everyone who ventures out into the mountains should carry a map and compass and know how to use them.  

The introductory lecture called GPS 101 will be held Saturday, March 12 from 2 to 3:00 p.m. at the National Park Service Visitor Center at 401 W. Hillcrest Drive in Thousand Oaks.  The outdoor field session, called GPS 102, will be held somewhere in the mountains on Saturday March 19. The time and exact location will be announced during the first event. People with a good understanding of GPS can attend just the second session by e-mailing Theune at

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