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Smart maps: forestry's newest frontier.

GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is a techie's Nintendo, but it's no game. It lets land managers create images that are the virtual reality of tomorrow's - or yesterday's - forests.

My Alaskan nostalgia was rapidly succumbing to inflight queasiness as I stared dizzily downward over Admiralty Island. Perilously low over Lake Florence, Ward Creek, and Peanut Lake - places I'd overflown often in this remarkable "bearadise" - I whirred past fog-gray Sitka spruce forests at treetop height. Suddenly I deep-banked to avoid a snow ridge line, then nearly collided with an ice-glazed hummock.

That last scene suddenly froze. My "pilot," Dave Bowman, tapped the Quit key on his personal computer in Beaverton, Oregon, 1,000 miles to the south. The image was gone.

"Now, you want to go down and drive one of the roads?" Dave asked. "What speed - 30, 40, 50 miles an hour? You want to look left, right, both ways?"

I was speechless.

That computer-simulated flight over an Alaskan rainforest had virtually brought me back to a land I love. It had also shown me far more than I'd ever seen from a float plane: Bright red boundary lines setting apart Forest Service and Alaska Native lands. Glowing blue stream beds normally hidden by trees. Green lines encircling different types of tree species. Crisp white lines for every single road.

Welcome to the cutting edge of GIS - Geographic Information Systems - in my opinion the most exciting, most usable, potentially most promising technological development to hit our forests since the computer itself.

And maybe the most scary, long-term. Most of the convincing GIS images are, after all, human-produced, human-altered, human-generalized. Therefore they're potentially subject to human data-collection lapses, honest mistakes or misjudgments, or (heaven forbid) intentional distortions to achieve a purpose.

A product largely of military, satellite imaging, and computer technology, GIS is a $500-million industry in the U.S. and is far bigger than you can imagine within the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, a number of state departments of forestry (mostly in the West), and among regional and nationwide timber companies like Weyerhaeuser, Boise Cascade, Georgia Pacific, Louisiana Pacific, Fibreboard, Pacific Lumber, and Willamette Industries.

Intriguingly, GIS is fast becoming smaller too, so far as users are concerned: If you're a computer-owning tree-farm operator with, say, 600 acres of timberland, somewhat less than $8,000 to invest, and perhaps an indulgent mate, you too can begin practicing the new "Nintendo" forestry (the technology actually has no connection with that computer-games company).

In your forestry retooling process you'll tap satellite information about your forestlands with your own Global Positioning System hardware, connected to an awesome, hand-held GIS computer. And you'll soon discover that GIS is really no game at all. Rather it's a highly graphic, here-and-now, time-saving, potentially profit-producing way to manage a forest or even a forest ecosystem.

Whereas the real Nintendo games and others like the prize-winning Sim[ulation]City series are built around a choice of interactive, story-boarded alternatives and consequences, GIS maps literally materialize out of your own forest realities.

Furthermore, by inputting historical or projected data - i.e., timber-production figures or tree-growth rates for different species - you can visually "see" the past or the future in time-lapse maps produced for that purpose. Or you can lay out alternative cut rates, planting programs, and road-development options, and show the long-term results of the ones you construct. Sustained harvest? The effects of bug kill or wildfire on your land? Commercial land development? Wildlife constraints? No problem. They all can be "pictured" on GIS maps that come rolling off your own color printer.

Tutorial One

GIS is a method by which anyone with a so-called 486 or Pentium (processor chip) personal computer, the right software, and a little instruction can build a series of two- or even three-dimensional "layer maps," and then combine them as needed to manage a forest.

Using your own PC or by contracting the job out to experts, you can easily select information layers from any of 10, 15, or more choices to produce just the map you need. (A map containing all available layers would probably be unreadable.) Example: A map programmed to automatically show 100-foot buffer areas along salmon streams, together with reads, slopes, and tree species.

Alaskan Magic

That Admiralty Island "flight," created by Atterbury Consultants, an out-front forestry consulting firm near Portland, Oregon, is the newest and maybe the glitziest development in forestry GIS. It was created under contract with Koncor, an Alaska Native corporation, in support of its timber operations in Southeast Alaska.

Koncor, many of whose board members have never been to Admiralty, needed to get a handle on its timber holdings as it moves toward sustained timber harvests.

"They went wild," enthuses Atterbury's Tim Branan in recalling a showing of the GIS-generated flight to Koncor board members in Tacoma, Washington, recently.

Frankly, this type of cutting-edge experience is not something you're going to casually create on your 486 PC. The Atterbury magic used a French satellite image known as SPOT, a 3-D Disney-like animation package, AutoCAD software, "wire mesh" topography, a special contour "draping" effect - plus a lot of real-life data right off the forest and tons of creativity. Other top-drawer visualizations might tap six or seven different software packages.

Never mind that Bowman, GIS mapping-department manager at Atterbury, wears gray gym shorts, a T-shirt marked "Harvard University Athletic Department" and Nike running shoes to work. Or that his wife occasionally calls him a geek. Many of these GIS types, particularly in the private sector, are bright, self-confident, even audacious. They dress as they please.

Tutorial Two

Picture that ragtag U.S. Geological Survey topographic map you're using, with those tired, smudgy acetate overlays showing, for example, your latest timber cut, on which you've been drawing with a grease pencil.

Throw it away.

Walk over to your computer (PC or notebook), access digitized maps supporting your property, and add any information you'd like - for example, places where bald eagles nest - using your mouse.

Now switch on your HP DeskJet color printer. Voila! Here comes a marvelous composite map showing, say, timber types, contour lines, access reads, and eagle-protection "targets."

Putting GIS To Work

The digitized map, especially when it's colored, contoured, and draped in 3-D grays, is the dazzling part of GIS. But as Joyce Mousseau, GIS manager for Condor Earth Technologies in Sonora, California, explains, "Behind every picture is data - in other words, we produce smart maps."

Put another way, even though aerial photos, satellite images, conventional maps, and land surveys may be used in compositing GIS data layers, it's the tabular digital data (tables of numbers) that really builds them. Examples: numerically expressed map positions, contour lines at a specific elevation, timber types by age, the protection radius (in feet or meters) from a known owl-nesting site.

Obviously, this kind of info is invaluable when pictured on a map. Here are a few graphic "proof sheets":

* On Oregon's Tillamook State Forest, Department of Forestry personnel had a hunch about why a lot of all-terrain-vehicle users and other visitors were getting lost, or coming home mighty late, on 100-plus miles of trails in the area. No maps existed for at least half the roads, which ATV riders had literally rutted into the forest over the years.

Using motorbikes, antenna-mounted hardhats, high-powered handheld computers, and technical help from Atterbury Consultants, two ODF employees "beeped" their way along the trails, receiving GPS (Global Positioning System) radio signals from satellites some 500 miles overhead, and logging the location data into their handhelds as they rode along. Result: a highly accurate GIS map of motorized and non-motorized trails, published last summer.

* On a sprawling 61,000-acre private holding in northern California, Rick Swift, woodlands manager for The Hearst Corporation, has quietly developed one of the most complete GIS layer decks supporting any private forest operation: close to 30 layers of information, with heavy emphasis on wildlife.

The info deck, produced with the help of VESTRA Resources, a consulting firm in nearby Redding, features an elk forage/habitat summary, a first-in-California wildfire defense plan by a private property owner, soils models, and an impressive visualization of wildlife/habitat relationships.

* Through a contract with PG&E, the California megatility, VESTRA came to the rescue following the disastrous 20,000-acre Cleveland forest fire in 1992. Thanks to an earlier buildup of utility-line data on a GIS data layer, it took the consultants only a couple of hours to produce a complete "shopping list" of replacement power poles, transformers, lines, and other needed equipment - while the fire was still burning.

* The Forest Service and Michigan California Lumber Co. used other GIS data, with VESTRA's help, to craft a rehabilitation plan following the Cleveland Fire. Normally an 18- to 24-month task, the job took less than six months.

* On California's Stanislaus National Forest, GIS whiz Jim Schmidt noticed a plume of smoke from his home one weekend a few years back. He rushed to headquarters and "GISed" the Ruby Fire area, then promptly delivered a highly useful, three-dimensioned map to fire-management officers for use in fighting the fire.

* In Washington State, the Department of Natural Resources teamed up with Pacific Meridian Resources, a large GIS consulting firm headquartered in California, to digitize 2 million acres of trust lands managed by the agency. Spotted owls, marbled murrelets, and even western gray squirrels receive GIS attention in the DNR's efforts.

Tutorial Three

Environmental Systems Research Institute of Redlands, California (909/793-2853), is the largest, most commonly mentioned GIS software firm, with nearly 50 percent of the combined forestry-ag market. ESRI produces ARC/INFO, ArcCAD, and ArcView.

Condor Earth Technologies of Sonora, California (209/532-0361), is pioneering the introduction of forest-related GIS at a nearby college. It also co-sponsors excellent conferences and builds forestry databases for GIS applications.

Atterbury Consultants of Beaverton, Oregon (503/646-5393), is heavily GIS forest-oriented, sells know-how, digitizes maps, markets application hardware, offers ESRI-oriented training and software, even runs a catchy forest-products boutique.

VESTRA Resources of Redding, California (916/223-2585), specializes in high-tech data transfer like GPS, is an ESRI-authorized supplier of off-shelf software, and has an impressive government/commercial client list.

Thinking Small

The way things are going, I wonder if someday I might be able to use some of this gear to "GIS" our forested mountain-side here in Washington State.

I'd probably choose to show property ownerships (we each own about five acres) and roads, and then create a special layer for our wildfire-protection program that would include the location of our hydrants, escape trails, fire-engine turnarounds, refuge areas, and the like - for ongoing planning purposes.

I called Bob Wright at Atterbury Consultants and found that his firm could digitize our existing neighborhood plat (less than one square mile) for around $150 - much to my surprise. For an additional $2,500, I could buy the necessary ESRI software, a series of Atterbury training courses, and a nice HP 500C color printer, plus digitizing services for our wildfire-protection info layer. Bob recommended that my PC have a 486/66 or better computer chip, eight or more megabytes of RAM (random access memory), and a 500-megabyte hard drive (for general data storage). If I wanted a nice 3x3-foot laminated display map in full color, Atterbury - or even AMERICAN FORESTS - could crank one out at minimal cost.

Obviously, GIS is making surprising progress toward my kind of "small-guy" applications.

VESTRA Resources' Emmor Nile recently GISed (developed computerized maps for) a 150-acre plot of land he purchased 20 years ago on California's Sacramento River. Originally platted as part of a turn-of-the-century land-development scam to lure unsuspecting souls around San Francisco, the lots were 50 by 100 feet, had no dedicated road access, and were too steep to build homes on. Nile, who owns adjacent property, would like to merge the lots with his own property and reforest them.

Enter GIS and a computer-generated map that handily shows property boundaries (with a different color for each of 37 owners), the river, trails - and the obvious absence of access roads for the unfortunate owners. The GIS map, when shown to those owners, may make its own point, and Nile may be successful in buying their property.

Other small GIS applications:

* A color map of ownership plots on the lower, heavily forested shoulders of nearby Mt. Shasta, produced by VESTRA under contract with the Klamath Alliance for Resources and Environment, is helping the Alliance to successfully oppose a controversial historical district.

* GIS maps are helping people in northern California's Plumas County to find common ground in a high-profile issue involving local input on management of the Plumas National Forest. The broad-based community effort is spear-headed by the so-called Quincy Library Group (profiled in the last issue of American Forests).

Tutorial Four

To access the very latest in forest-related GIS technology, 1) subscribe to Geo Into Systems magazine, Eugene, Oregon (800/949-6525), 2) ask Condor Associates (phone number in previous tutorial) about its PenMap field-data-collection system and Leica Vectormap laser binocular, 3) request software/hardware/seminar catalog from Atterbury Consultants, 4) check out regularly scheduled GIS courses at VESTRA Resources.

Meanwhile, enroll in a GIS forestry course or conference through any of the above consultants.

Thinking Big

Light years away from small applications, you have an array of immense GIS projects by the federal land-management agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management:

* In Portland, Oregon, from where the BLM manages millions of acres of forestlands, GIS specialist Duane Dippon explains, "A year ago we did planning by BLM district. Now we do it by environmental provinces, looking at the whole landscape. We couldn't do this without GIS."

The agency's biggest forestry effort is right in Portland, where BLM, which began its GIS efforts in 1985, has stored a staggering 52 giga-bytes of information for its western Oregon digital database. That's roughly comparable to the combined memory capacity of 1,300 personal computers.

That database was a major factor in crafting Operation Feather, a series of ecosystem reports and land-management plans, including one published under the name of today's Forest Service chief, Jack Ward Thomas, and other members of a select scientific panel in 1991.

"It took four years to build the database, four weeks to produce the report," enthuses Dippon.

More recently, the same BLM database was an important factor in producing an incredibly complex, 30-layer GIS analysis of a number of alternatives for eco-oriented forest management, following President Clinton's forest conference in Portland early in 1993. It encompassed a staggering 54 million acres.

That interagency/academic report, featuring alternate options, was produced within just 100 days of the President's visit, and it firmly installed GIS as a going - indeed indispensable - way of managing our forests.

* At Forest Service regional headquarters in old-town Portland, John Steffenson, a "spatial analysis" unit leader, was similarly involved with the so-called Jack Ward Thomas spotted-owl report. But since then, the GIS stakes have risen meteorically. In a huge effort involving the Forest Service, BLM, and a supporting cast of perhaps 100 specialists, the colossal Eastside Ecosystem Management Project, which studies ecosystem and socio-economic factors for the entire Columbia River Basin east of the Cascades, dwarfs all earlier GIS efforts. "The project is mind-boggling," Steffenson attests.

Imagine 144 million acres under study. Perhaps 100 layers of information. The digitizing of 10,000 maps. Studies involving forestry, wildlife, population pressures, salmon depletion, cold-water trout. Now you begin to see that forests, the star players in earlier western GIS efforts, are just components of a far greater study universe.

Elsewhere within the Forest Service, GIS national coordinator Wanda Gibson cites a broad spectrum of GIS applications on George Washington National Forest in Virginia, Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin, and Tongass National Forest in Alaska. GIS was an important player in helping the decimated pine forests of North Carolina to recover following Hurricane Hugo, speeding the preparation of environmental analyses.

And in Atlanta, GIS regional coordinator Roy Mead mentions imaginative programs supporting such eco-creatures as the scrub jay, gopher tortoise, and Puerto Rican parrot in a string of national forests stretching from Texas to Florida and the Caribbean.

Toward the Future

As GIS picks up speed and sophistication, some folks feel like "a kid in a candy shop," as Condor's president, Barry Hillman, suggests.

But like the computer, Geographic Information Systems is not an end in itself, nor are the magnificent maps it creates ends in themselves. The reality of trees, forests, ecosystems, soil types, and countless other variables must come first. And that means getting out on the forest - something the little guy still seems to do a lot more efficiently than the large government agency.

With GIS acting as a visualizer of reality rather than a driving force in itself, we humans are for the first time in a position to powerfully envision the past, present, and future on our forestlands, to consider small ecosystems and huge basins, to take stock of our forest stewardship, to weigh alternatives, to make wise decisions in a way never before possible.


Information "layering" is the essence of Geographic Information Systems.

Any good cartographer could probably put everything you want on a map - perhaps overcrowding it to the point of illegibility. In going the GIS route, you convert your own standard map information to digitized data (the zeros and ones understood by a computer), sometimes with the help of a local GIS consultant, who may use additional digitized data.

You get just what you want on a GIS map by storing the data on different "layers," in your or the consultant's personal computer, then combining just the layers you want (i.e., property lines, contour interval lines, and dominant tree species) lo produce a composite map.

Under "do-it-yourself" GIS, the 486/66 (or better) personal computer, supported by the necessary software, becomes your personal "cartographer," rapidly producing just what you want on each map, which should be produced on a color printer for best readability.

Different data layers - watercourses, deer-browse areas, erosion-prone soils, etc. - can be "called down" to create maps to support other operations.

This kind of layered versatility is the key element in GIS. But when you discover that you can update any data layer whenever you wish, you also happily realize that GIS produces maps as fresh as that stand of trees you planted this morning.


Deep within the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California, local residents, a string of government agencies, and the University of California are teaming up to find GIS-based "common truth" in charting an economic and eco-management plan for the area.

Headquartered in tiny, forest-resources-dependent Hayfork (pop. 2,500), the Trinity Community GIS Center is funded by the Forest Service, California Department of Forestry, Trinity River Task Force, and others. Its goal: to train people to use GIS to chart a path of progress in a bio-region that extends miles from Hayfork.

In business for a year and a half, the Center has exchanged important technical information with the Forest Service in layering digitized GIS data for map-making.

Explains Dr. Yvonne Everett of the University of California, Berkeley, who coordinates the Center's work, "Local knowledge is an incredible valuable resource, and our localized GIS training will result in much better information on which to act."

In the process, some of the residents of this community, devastated by an 80 percent cut in logging production, might find themselves conducting on-the-ground GIS map surveys for good wages.


"You have to know the accuracy or inaccuracy of the GIS data. Few check it as much as they should," says the Forest Service's John Steffenson.

"A map is only as good as its underlying data; the glitter and glamour sometimes lead to inaccurate conclusions," echoes VESTRA Resources' Dean Angelides.

Rock-solid, quality GIS depictions are not only symbols of scientific professionalism, they're also vital components of an ethical imperative for this new game of virtual forestry, I am learning.

As author Mark Monmonier, writing entertainingly in How To Lie with Maps, points out, maps can be distorted as easily as can words or photos. His book is worth a read. It points up the fact that those who create map-based GIS depictions must do so with a set of values that are just now congealing.

How To Lie with Maps, by Mark Monmonier, University of Chicago Press, 1991.

RELATED ARTICLE: How GIS Works for Urban Ecosystems

GIS technology is used in and around urban areas for land-use planning, engineering, and urban-ecosystem analysis. However, the information collected and the graphics produced are much different from those used for rural areas. Individual trees and structures are key elements in the data set in urban areas while stands of trees are the data units in rural forests. This means that satellite imagery can be used as the information source for rural forests, but lower-level fixed-wing aircraft photography needs to be used in urban areas. The smallest information area or pixel record by a satellite's sensors is 10 to 30 meters (33 to 100 feet) across while the photographs used in urban areas by AMERICAN FORESTS provide detail down to one square foot. Information on urban ecosystems must be made relevant to local decision-makers, so it needs to be in the language they use for land-use planning. Data can then be collected and analyzed using the GIS technology. Only then will forests be recognized as an important part of the built-up urban infrastructure.

HERBERT MCLEAN is a prize-winning resource writer who appears frequently in these pages. He traveled more than 1,000 miles and interviewed dozens of experts to produce this feature.
COPYRIGHT 1995 American Forests
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles; Geographic Information Systems
Author:McLean, Herbert E.
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1995
Previous Article:Walk this way on Earth Day.
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