ESRI Conservation Program: GIS Stories from the field

The Wilderness Society

The Wilderness Society (TWS) is a non-profit organization established in 1935. TWS is committed to the protection and preservation of all public lands. This includes the analysis and review of management strategies for these lands. TWS's Spatial Analysis Team plays a key role in the evaluation of land management plans and their effects using GIS and remote sensing.


The Wilderness Society's (TWS) GIS and remote sensing program, The Center for Landscape Analysis, has grown into a strong contributor to the national and regional conservation efforts of many organizations. These organizations include other environmental groups, federal, state and local government agencies, and Congressional offices. This paper will describe past, current and future efforts to cooperate with, and contribute to, the work of these organizations.

Outreach and cooperative efforts take many forms including a series of workshops to explain and clarify President Clinton's Northwest forest plan. The workshops were attended by over 250 citizen activists. Aside from this project, the Center continues to fill general requests for mapped information with help from volunteers trained in GIS at the Center. The Center also distributes its ancient forest, Pacific salmon and Northwest forest plan data in digital and mapped formats to a number of environmental groups, governmental agencies and private industries. Volunteers and staff of other environmental organizations such as the Greater Ecosystem Alliance and Sierra Club have been using the facilities of the Center to learn and build their GIS skills while creating and analyzing data for their own uses. In the future, the Center will cooperate on projects and provide information to the Forest Service, the Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, LightHawk, Sierra Club, Washington Wilderness Coalition, and many others.

Central Cascade Checkerboard Lands

Serious habitat fragmentation exists in the central cascades of Washington due to logging. The problem is accentuated by the checkerboard ownership pattern of private industrial timber land and U. S. Forest Service land. The Center for Landscape Analysis was asked by local activists to use GIS and remote sensing technology to demonstrate the resulting patterns of habitat degradation.(Full size Checkerboard map: 395kb)

The attached map illustrates the patterns of land ownership that lead to the serious habitat fragmentation. Yet maps alone do not tell the story of what is happening to the forest ecosystem. Raw satellite data donated by NASA Goddard was converted into the two attached color images to illustrate the effects of logging practices across the landscape of fragmented ownership.

The first image was generated to mimic traditional color photography. In this image the forest appears green and the darker greens represent older forest. The second image is a false color infrared image. In this image the forest ranges from green or yellow in recent clear cuts to orange of middle aged forest to brown of late successional forest. It is not what the human eye is accustomed to seeing but contains a great deal more information about the forested landscape. For instance forest areas that appear uniform in the first image show a variety of forest harvest ages in the infrared image. Please see the map legends for further description of colors and features.

These images illustrate the complex pattern of the forest across the central cascades of Washington. Forest that was once uniform late successional forest broken only by natural physiographic features and local natural disturbances, can now be seen as a highly fragmented landscape. Imagine the first image as it would have appeared a century ago – vast expanses of dark green broken only by lakes and alpine rock and snow. The checkerboard of alternation forest stands and clear cuts can be seen in the central portion of the image. Clear cuts across the image range from small cuts on the U. S. Forest Service land to square mile clear cuts in the checkerboard ownership, to clear cuts of several square miles in large areas of private timber ownership. In addition to logging, other man-made barriers or brakes in the natural habitat can be seen such as highways and power lines.

These images have proved valuable tools for education a wide variety of interest groups. Without enlargements of these images at planning meetings it would have been nearly impossible to give participants an idea of the tremendous human impact and resulting patterns imposed on the landscape. From the new awareness generated by the images, people were able to move forward to discuss critical issues of habitat fragmentation, contiguous core habitats, migration corridors, and ultimately the land exchanges and purchases needed to improve the forest habitat. Efforts are now underway to eliminate the checkerboard ownership pattern and its destructive effects on the forest ecosystem.

Roadless Areas in Northeast Washington State, Columbia Mountains Wilderness Proposal

The Center for Landscape Analysis has nearly completed a GIS inventory of the last remaining roadless areas in the upper Columbia River Basin. The map entitled Roadless Areas in Northeast Washington State shows the data for northeast Washington. The areas shaded light purple show the inventoried roadless areas, regions documented in the forest plans for each National Forest. These have been updated in areas of recent logging and road incursions. Uninventoried roadless areas, in the darker purple, were located by local environmentalists and contain significant additional roadless habitat, that was not included in the Forest Service’s inventory. All roadless areas are currently unprotected, even though their existence is important to the well being of a multitude of plants, animals, and people. (Full size Roadless map: 210kb)

This inventory of intact habitat will be used by The Wilderness Society and conservationists throughout the Northwest. It will be used to assess the environmental impact statement due out soon from the federal interagency Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project, affecting land management across the multistate region. In addition, local activists are already using the information for local forest planning activities.

The Kettle Range Conservation Group in eastern Washington requested GIS assistance in generating a new wilderness proposal for the Columbia Mountains. The Columbia Mountains are highly regarded for their excellent hunting, fishing, and other recreational attributes. After nearly a century of logging, roading, and other forms of resource extraction, only islands of native forest remain. These wilderness islands contain critical wildlife habitat and offer outstanding recreational opportunities. This area also represents an important pathway for migrating species of wildlife between the U.S. and Canada, and Idaho and Washington state. (Full size Kettle Range map: 96kb)

The draft wilderness proposal is displayed on the map entitled Columbia Mountains Wilderness Proposal Proposed by The Kettle Range Conservation Group, Northeast Washington State. The Columbia Mountains Wilderness Proposal, shown in dark purple, is derived from the roadless layer with the addition of acreage from proposed road closures. By entering this information into GIS, we are able not only to display it, but also to calculate acreage and, along with other ecologic data layers, use it to analyze this important ecosystem. The Wilderness Society is using GIS to help the Kettle Range Conservation Group protect this vital area.

Late-Successional Rankings and Areas of Late-Successional Emphasis, Eldorado National Forest

Critical to the initial assessment of the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP) is a review of the forest data generated by SNEP scientists. The information displayed on the attached map is accessible only to individuals and organizations with GIS technology. Yet, these data hold key information about the condition of the forest and future management strategies. (Full size Eldorado map: 343kb)

This map displays the SNEP results of forest studies in the El Dorado National Forest. In simple terms, the darker the green the closer the forest is to being an old growth forest and the areas with red diagonal lines are areas identified as important for future ecosystem protection.

The solid colors on the map indicate the late-successional forest structure rankings. SNEP scientists believe that forest structure is indicative of the whether or not a forest is functioning as a late-successional or old growth forest. Ranking is on a scale of from 0 to 5 with 0 meaning the forest has little or no late-successional structure and 5 indicating extensive late-successional structure. The red hashed areas delineate the late successional emphasis (ALSE) reserve system proposed by SNEP scientists. The SNEP report defines the ALSE reserve system as "areas where maintenance of high-quality LS/OG (late-successional/old growth) forest is emphasized and activities that detract from this objective are minimized or eliminated."

SNEP GIS data, such as the forest data displayed here, form a rich base of information about the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem. We anticipate that many pieces of this data will become building blocks for improved land management strategies for the Sierra Nevada. The Wilderness Society’s challenge is to make this voluminous and complex set of data accessible in useful, educational formats so it may be used by all citizens interested in the future of the Sierra Nevada.

Sierra Nevada Bioregion

In the planning stages of the Sierra Nevada regional project, we realized there is a lack of awareness of the Sierra Nevada as a distinct region. Residents of the Sierras sometime consider them selves connected to adjacent communities in or just outside of the Sierra Nevada but seldom with communities North or South along the mountain range. Yet, a wide range of economic, ecologic, an social concerns are shared by communities throughout the range. (Full size SNEP map: 383kb)

The attached Sierra Nevada regional map was created to help people begin to think of the Sierras as a distinct region. It contains common geographic features and a regional boundary defined by the federally sponsored Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP). The map was generated from GIS data in The Center for Landscape Analysis’ archive and new data from SNEP. This initial product is being shared among project staff and cooperators at other organizations. It is a base upon which we will add more sophisticated data over the course of the project.


TWS and other environmental groups have traditionally reviewed forest plans without the aid of a GIS. Although these plans are scrutinized closely by experts, they rely on the summary figures provided in government agency reports without an opportunity to double check their results, generate additional figures not provided or to produce our own visual representation of a forest plan. The Clinton plan review combined established TWS expertise in forestry, biology and environmental law with the analytic and cartographic capabilities of a GIS. The ability to quickly produce figures from the GIS was important since there was less than 3 months for the draft plan and only one month for the final plan in which comments and recommendations could be submitted to the FEMAT.

The increase in the use of GIS by governmental agencies, in particular the Forest Service (USFS), prompted TWS to use GIS capabilities to evaluate their work. The ability to access the coverages and databases in the same format as they were created (ArcInfo and UNIX) allowed TWS to recreate the USFS's analyses with the assurance that we were working with the same data and that no errors would be introduced by the conversion of data. One difference between TWS's analyses and the USFS's analyses is the fact that TWS used our own ancient forest data as opposed to data from the USFS.


Text and graphics: The Wilderness Society
January 2, 1997 , Susan E. Balikov, GIS Coordinator, The Wilderness Society, 1424 4th Ave., Ste. 816, Seattle, WA 98101, Telephone: (206) 624-6430, Fax: (206) 624-7101

Web layout & design: ESRI Conservation Program, January 2, 1996

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