National Park Service Use of GIS to Manage Ecosystems

       Ecosystems are as varied as the meadows, glaciers, rivers, canyons and other resources that make up the National Park Service landscape. The primary resource of an ecosystem might be a lake, forest, desert, or a particular endangered plant or animal. This makes ecosystems hard to define. They often include complicated relationships between physical, biological and cultural resources. And federal law requires the National Park Service to preserve ecosystems that often extend beyond protective park boundaries. Within this realm, GIS is a great tool to understand ecosystems and their importance in our world today.
      GIS software has changed the way the National Park Service presents information internally and to the public. Scientists have long known there is no substitute for information and data about resources. But it’s another matter to display scientific findings in a simple way that makes common sense to policy makers and park visitors. GIS meets this challenge with colorful maps and posters packed with information that can illustrate the extent of an ecosystem and ease the job of describing it.
       The mapping function of GIS illustrates the relationships between individual parts of the ecosystem, such as a particular wilderness and the wildlife found there. This high-tech tool does simple jobs, such as measuring areas and distances, or more complex tasks involving many variables within an ecosystem. GIS software can produce models that show the slope of land, precipitation, the kind of soil, and help us understand their impacts on the ecosystem. A GIS can illustrate the relationship of an ecosystem to other areas and lets researchers monitor changes that take place over time. Animations or time-series maps offer convincing, understandable evidence when these changes happen.
        This wealth of information has helped the National Park Service do a better job as it preserves our parks. With help from GIS, park managers can study and react to potential environmental threats against a park that come from the outside. Using GIS, a park manager might propose extending park boundaries to include resources deemed critical for the health of an ecosystem. More frequently, it helps the National Park Service monitor ecosystems as part of its goal to preserve our natural wonders.

Andrew Valdez,Geologist
Great Sand Dunes National Monument and National Preserve


Mark Adams and John Portnoy, Cape Cod NS
Restoration of Historically Restricted Estuaries, Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

Historical misunderstandings and a lack of appreciation for Atlantic Coast estuaries and salt marshes have led to their widespread draining and development. Federal law created Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961 to protect some of these areas for recreation,
conservation and scientific study. Even so, the National Park Service must overcome an array of obstacles to restore salt marshes damaged by fragmented ownership, development, and lack of knowledge about human impacts. At the National Seashore, GIS, global positioning systems, and other technology tools help to restore tidal salt marshes and estuaries at Hatches Harbor, East Harbor, and Herring River. GIS maps display the geographic relationship between vegetation, wildlife, coastal waters, and tidal floodplain elevation, and help specialists predict the impact of tides flowing through culvert openings.
    At Hatches Harbor, the National Park Service in cooperation with local, state and federal agencies is restoring a native salt marsh to a level that won’t compromise safety at the nearby municipal airport. GIS specialists are mapping tide heights; deposits of sand, rocks, and other particles; mosquitoes, salinity, flooding duration and other themes that will help guide restoration strategy over decades. On the Herring River, scientists are restoring natural salt marshes that existed for thousands of years before European settlement interrupted the natural cycle with the placement of dikes starting in the 1700s. By 1910, dikes designed to reduce mosquitoes at the river mouth instead caused most of the original marshlands to disappear. The long history of dikes, drains, and depletion of oxygen in the water helps cause fish kills, reduces fish and shellfish populations, and hurts water quality. The mosquito thrives with fewer predators around. The program to restore the marshland should improve wildlife and fish habitat and leave fewer mosquitoes. GIS technology is expected to help make this happen by modeling solutions to prevent saltwater intrusion into wells and flooding of a nearby golf course. Displaying data and models on GIS maps will play a big part in helping scientists solve these and other restoration issues on the national seashore.

Main Poster

Map of herring river restoration areas

Map of hatches harbor restoration areas

Location map of Cape Cod within the New England states

Cape Cod tidal restrictions context map

Aerial photo of herring river with tidal restriction (dike)

Photo of typical natural salt marsh (Spartina alterniflora) channel.

Aerial photo of hatches harbor with tidal restriction (dike)

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Greg Daniels, Alaska Region
Unified Ecoregions of Alaska

 Scientists with hundreds of years of experience in Alaska have produced a GIS-based map that displays the major ecosystems of the state for research, planning, and to help us protect, understand, and enjoy the values of this vast landscape. The international effort brought together and expanded on earlier mapping efforts dating to the Cold War. The new map portrays ecosystems as they span international boundaries, in nearby Canada and Russia. The map identifies ecosystems primarily by their climate and shape of the land, or topography. Scientists wanted the new map to ease confusion over the need to use and compare several different mapping and classification systems in their research, and to improve communication among agencies. The new map draws on relatively new tools such as satellite photography, global positioning systems, computers, and GIS software, for accuracy and easy review. The final map, with multiple layers of geographic information, represents the collective wisdom of nearly 50 scientists and advice from local experts. From the map, researchers and the public can learn about temperature, precipitation, the rugged nature of the land, plants, wildlife, glaciers, and other features. It has become an important tool to understand the individual parts of the ecosystems and how those parts relate to each other and to the region as a whole. It provides an exceptional “Virtual Ecological Tour” of Alaska’s national parks.

Ecological Regions of Alaska

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Ann Hebig, Devils Tower NM
2002 Exotic Plant Management - Chemical Control

President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower as the nation’s first national monument in 1906, recognizing the rock formation in the Black Hills of Wyoming as one of the most remarkable peaks in the country. Yet noxious weeds and other exotic plants in the monument have disrupted the natural process of fire, hydrology and the renewal of carbon, water, nitrogen, and other nutrients. The weeds also hurt native plant and wildlife populations. The park aims to control these harmful plants to protect the monument, prevent their spread, and preserve the natural view for visitors. The park’s weed-fighting arsenal includes the release of flea beetles and other bugs, herbicides, and the removal of exotic plants near development, roads, and trails. It also includes high-tech tools such as ArcView software developed by ESRI. Using data collected from global positioning systems, ArcView produces GIS maps that help the park visualize the distribution of exotic plants and their treatment in the monument.

ArcView 3.3 layout of 2002 chemical treatment of exotic plants at Devils Tower National Monument.

Example of the type of backpack sprayer used at Devils Tower to treat exotic plants with herbicide.

Digital photo of Devils Tower staff spraying leafy spurge using a boom mounted on an ATV.

Digital photo of Devils Tower staff spraying hound's tongue using a high-capacity hand-gun sprayer mounted on a pickup.

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Frank Partridge, Big Cypress National Preserve
South Florida Composite Topographic Mapping

The broad movement of water across a nearly flat surface dominates the famous Everglades ecosystem in Florida. The celebrated “River of Grass” flows seaward through grass marshes and cypress forests, reaching a width of 30 miles in some places. Yet for more than a century, dams, dikes, levees, canals, railways, and roads have affected the natural flow, direction, volume, and quality of the river. In recent years, we found that the natural flow of the river is the healthy system, beneficial to plants, animals, and the future of our world. The National Park Service and other parties involved are trying to restore the original conditions, despite the massive scale of change that has occurred. In this process of restoration, some believe the greatest information challenge is the ability to depict the topographic surface in ways that allow meaningful analysis to make decisions. Maps that show contours of one meter proved largely useless for all but the overview. To meet the challenge, the park service created GIS-based maps that allow topographic contours of one-tenth of a foot. The mapping effort relied on federal, state, and private databases, each varying in extent and accuracy. GIS specialists combined the datasets using automated and hand-drawn contouring to create a region-wide topology for analysis. The affected region includes four national parks, Big Cypress National Preserve, Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, and Everglades National Park. Dozens more protected areas are on the receiving end of this lazy yet tenacious water pipeline, making it crucial to understand the pathways of water from its sources to the sea.

Big Cypress N.Pres., topographic mapping

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Phoebe Vanselow and Sharman Lewis, Glacier Bay NP
Alaska Coastal Resources Inventory and Mapping Program

A high-tech mapping program in Alaska offers national park managers and the public easy access to geographic information about coastal areas, for purposes of research, education, management, and preservation. The program at Sitka National Historic Park, Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve displays the information on colorful GIS maps for easy review. The maps display data to help mangers evaluate changes in the coastline, determine areas needing special protection, plan for environmental disasters, study historical and archeological sites, and explain park features to the public. The GIS maps show more than 885 miles of coastline within the three parks and draw from 19,500 ground photographs and 305 aerial photographs. GIS technology combines databases, photos, and maps into one visual display to help managers and researchers guide and preserve the parks.

View of database showing general information about a shoreline segment and displaying ground photos taken at the segment.

View of database showing graphical display of a pace transect capturing information about vertical zonation in a shoreline segment and displaying ground photos taken at the segment.

View of database showing the map tool that allows the user to select a shoreline of interest. The view shows the location of a selected shoreline segment polygon and displays its infrared aerial photo and ground photos taken at the segment.

An illustration of an infrared aerial photo georeferenced into a useable map. Segment polygons are then heads-up digitized on the aerial photo to be linked to the database.

View of database showing the intertidal organisms noted as present in a shoreline segment and displaying ground photos taken at the segment.

Poster describing the Alaska Coastal Resources Inventory and Mapping Program (includes text and graphics)

An illustration of segment polygons that have been heads-up digitized using a georeferenced infrared aerial photo. Segment polygons are then linked to their respective coastal resource data in the database.

An example of a ground photo taken in a segment.

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