In their most basic form, maps show us where things are and how to get there. We pore over wrinkled road maps on summer vacation. We print out Internet directions to the nearest post office or supermarket. At the mall, we check the wall map to save our tired feet from a wrong turn. In our national parks, maps point us to the geyser basin, natural bridge or waterfall we came to experience. Maps and geographic information have always served another, larger purpose in the National Park Service, to preserve America’s most special places for our benefit, enjoyment, and education.
In the early days, cartographers created hand drawings of parks to illustrate such features as wagon trails, cattle grazing areas, wildfire perimeters, battlefield topography, and stream meanderings. Some of the earliest maps came from John Wesley Powell and his expedition through the Grand Canyon and from the U.S. Army Fifth Cavalry at Yosemite in 1896. Field maps from military cartographers and surveyors have helped national parks recreate authentic landscapes for visitors to see where their ancestors fought and died during the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Civil War.
Today, the park service combines the best of early cartography with the latest technology to collect and display geographic information. Relatively new mapping tools include GIS software, global positioning systems, satellite photography and storage of national park maps on computers for easy access and review. The park service now spends more than $17 million annually on geographic data. It is a grand endeavor of more than 11,000 topographic map sheets representing more than 84 million acres. The park service and other partners together are mapping soils, plant life, geology, and other earth science themes at more than 388 national parks. The ongoing program eventually will produce the first standard set of digital national park base maps.
Using GPS and hand-held computers in the field, the park service can more accurately pinpoint locations of archeological sites, endangered species, and nesting areas and then download them into GIS maps for review. A GIS map can show the geographic relationship of bird nest areas to soils, erosion rates, elevation and vegetation in that area. The ability to display all the information layers on a single map helps park managers as they decide where to release captive-bred California condors into the wild, close a trail to protect newborn bighorn sheep, or increase patrols against artifact theft.
Most mapping and geographic studies now extend beyond national park boundaries. They might display the relationship of the park to streams, coastlines, glaciers, rock formations, hazardous waste cleanup sites, and even cities. The park service works with several federal agencies and other groups to collect geographic information using sophisticated sensors on satellites, aircraft, balloons, ships, and submarines. Displaying the information on GIS maps helps the park service compare different types of data. GIS technology can help park managers predict how various factors, such as drought, shoreline changes, or increased thermal activity, might affect a park. The power of GIS helps us relate, analyze, and model historic and current features and phenomena within a particular study area. Without new technology and geographic information, the National Park Service would face a difficult and sometimes impossible task to measure, map and understand America’s changing landscape and environment.
GIS and cartographic tools are
important to the geologists working in national parks. Geology, often
at as merely being attributable only to scenery, actually play a much
role in the ecosystem. The importance of geology to our everyday
is obvious to the geologist: it ranges from shaping the earth’s surface
to controlling where we eventually settle in communities. With GIS, the
geologist can illustrate the importance of the science of geology to
including soil scientists, botanists, and ecologists, and national park
visitors. Capitol Reef National Park in Utah uses GIS maps help predict
habitat for threatened and endangered species, including Winkler’s
Barneby reed-mustard, and Jones cycladenia. The park also found a
link between the presence of several plant species and Navajo
Geologic maps describe underlying conditions of natural systems and are
key in the study of ecosystems, earth history, soils, and environmental
hazards such as fires, landslides, and falling rocks. When combined
GIS technology, these maps have advantages over traditional paper
maps. GIS maps display the relationship between the earth’s surface and
bedrock to data on soil, vegetation, water and other features. It
study of all these features on a single precise map for fast, easy
and creates a powerful database. The park service has developed many of
its digital maps using ArcView software developed by ESRI.
Figure 1. National Park Service areas in Utah and western Colorado; Capitol Reef NP shown in red
Figure 2. Digital geologic map of Capitol Reef NP and surrounding area (produced by NPS Geologic Resources Inventory staff from Billingsley, G.H., Huntoon, P.W., Beard, W.J., 1987, Geologic Map of Capitol Reef National Park and Vicinity, Utah, Utah Geolog
Figure 3. Derivative map showing occurrence and distribution of a few threatened and endangered species and their ties to geologic units in the Fruita area of Capitol Reef NP.
Poster showing screen captures of map enabled databases.
Screen Capture of Glacier Bay Placenames
Screen Capture of Humback Whale Data
Kalaupapa National Historic Park contains the setting for two tragedies in Hawaiian history. The first was the forced removal of indigenous people in 1865 and 1895 from an area where they had lived for more than 900 years on the island of Molokai. The second was the forced isolation of thousands of Hawaiians sick with leprosy between 1866 and 1969, first at Kalawao and then at Kalaupapa. Many surviving patients of Hansen’s Disease, or leprosy, still live at Kalaupapa. Hundreds of historic buildings remain, and distinct neighborhoods support many activities of daily life. The National Park Service and state of Hawaii have been putting these historic buildings under the park’s care since its creation in 1980. The park reviewed the historic value of each structure and identified more than 200 buildings as a high priority for preservation. ArcView software developed by ESRI displayed the location of each historic building on an interactive GIS map. The map contains data on the condition of each building, and the work and money needed for restoration. The ability to join GIS data to other databases has given managers a new tool to preserve history at Kalaupapa.
Kalaupapa NHP Facility Management Software System (FMSS) Buildings Asset Layer
Kalaupapa NHP LCS Condition Assessment with Photographs
Kalaupapa Settlement Screen Capture with ID of Bay View Building 1
List of Classified Structures Condition Ratings For Buildings with 3 Photo Examples
The 15 national parks of Alaska cover
million acres of some of the most pristine lands in America. From
to grasslands and from polar bears to reindeer, these parks feature an
incredible variety of, habitat, wildlife, and plant species across vast
ecosystems. Mapping the health and analyzing trends in these theses
has become a job for GIS. At Katmai National Park and Preserve, GIS
used ArcGIS software developed by ESRI, satellite images and other
to map the types of vegetation in a study area of more than 4 million
of rugged, remote wilderness. As a result of this work, Katmai produced
a final, generalized map showing the land cover of the entire park.
GIS-based maps help park managers evaluate the condition of ecosystems
and make planning decisions to guide their preservation.
Illustration of species distribution masks for Katmai vegetation mapping.
Illustration of water model results as implemented for Katmai vegetation mapping.
Illustration of winter image model results as implemented for Katmai vegetation mapping.
Illustration of shadow model results as implemented for Katmai vegetation mapping.
Poster summary of the Katmai Vegetation Map including final vegetation map and models.
The unique GIS map, “Existing Public
Lands in Alaska and Yukon Territory” shows all the public lands of
on one sheet. The map provides vital information for regional planning
in the state’s national parks, based on data collected from state and
agencies and the Internet. It is one of a series of digital maps
to national parks in Alaska that helps scientists and managers use GIS
technology in their daily work. Another popular GIS map shows the
parks of Alaska in relation to federally designated “Wild and Scenic
The park service also produces GIS maps on paper, including several
maps and a series of park maps for many uses, including wilderness and
Public Recreation Lands in Alaska and Yukon
Point Reyes National Seashore in
California offers haven to thousands of migratory birds and more than
animal species, including elephant seals, gray whales, and tule elk.
ocean views, winding trails, and historic lighthouse offer inspiration
and recreation. Its rare coastal wetlands feature salt, brackish, and
marshes, meadows, and seasonal ponds. This national park aims to
protect and restore these invaluable wetlands from hazardous material
failing septic systems, beef and dairy operations, construction, and
historic neglect and abuse of the land. As a preservation tool, GIS
helps the National Park Service accurately map the location, size, and
type of wetlands as a way to evaluate environmental damage and plan
In one case, field crews identified plant species found in wetlands of
the 4,000-acre Abbotts lagoon. The park displayed the botanical
on a detailed GIS map for research, planning and public review.
Wetlands in the Abbotts Lagoon Watershed displayed with Cowardin System, Class, and Water Regime Modifier
A detail of a portion of the wetlands in the Abbotts Lagoon Watershed displayed at the finest level of thematic resolution with Cowardin System, and NWI code.