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Fall 2004
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To Manage Native Biodiversity

Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Develops a Statewide Enterprise GIS

Throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the natural heritage of plant and animal life is under pressure from pollution, sprawl, and invasive alien species. The commonwealth has lost at least 192 species of plants and animals, including the passenger pigeon, the American bison, the wolverine, and the eastern cougar. Nearly 500 species have been diminished to endangerment status, including the small whorled pogonia, the peregrine falcon, the short-eared owl, and the brindled madtom. In an effort to reclaim its unique environmental legacy, the commonwealth has established a plan to better conserve the state's most precious native biodiversity resources.

This project is undertaken by the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program (PNHP), which is a partnership between the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and The Nature Conservancy, to collect, manage, and provide information on Pennsylvania's most significant ecological resources. Within the commonwealth, DCNR staff are responsible for maintaining and preserving the 116 state parks, managing the 2.1 million acres of state forest land, providing information on the state's ecological and geologic resources, and establishing community conservation partnerships with grants and technical assistance to benefit natural resource management and open space conservation.

The project also involved substantial input from biologists at the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, and the Pennsylvania Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; program staff at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection; and PNHP's many partners at other state and federal agencies as well as members of the business and private conservation communities. Most of these individuals contributed to this effort through their work on PNHP's multisector advisory committee, which provided invaluable feedback and guidance throughout project planning, development, and testing.

"A key charge under the mission of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is to better understand and conserve the commonwealth's biological diversity," explains Sally Just, DCNR director of Conservation Science. "One way that we have been able to deal with these concerns has been by working with our partners to share information using GIS technology."

The Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program

Early in 2002, DCNR awarded Esri Professional Services a contract to implement a GIS solution to manage and securely distribute the natural heritage data statewide. A parallel contract was awarded to NatureServe to work with Esri to ensure that the applications and database supported the Biotics Element Occurrence data standard for mapping occurrence and distribution of species of special concern.

The Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program focuses on conducting inventories and collecting data about the commonwealth's special concern regarding biological diversity statewide. PNHP information is critical to ecosystem management, informed land use planning, and other activities related to biodiversity conservation and sustainable development within the commonwealth. This partnership provides information to statewide environmental programs and assists in decision making by federal, state, county, and local agencies. "For example," explains Jean Fike, PNHP director, "before most permit decisions are made by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the PNHP database must be consulted. The database also is used in decisions regarding statewide species status."

The system is a spatially enabled, statewide, enterprise GIS that was designed to meet a diverse set of user needs. On the front end, Esri worked with DCNR to design a user-centric, Web-based tool using ArcIMS that allows individuals to draw their proposed projects as point, line, or polygon features on a map and then to query the database to determine whether the proposed project has the potential to affect known populations of threatened or endangered species or other species of special concern. On the back end, Esri worked closely with NatureServe to extend the NatureServe data model to support the PNHP application and to design a database using ArcSDE that stores information in an integrated data management system consisting of map, manual, and computer files.

Additionally, PNHP concentrates efforts to convert species occurrence data to heritage specific GIS formats pioneered by NatureServe using Esri software; construct a database that has built-in intelligence related to PNHP environmental review decisions; and broaden the exposure to PNHP data, with appropriate security, to all users in the commonwealth via Internet access. "The ability to provide information and tools over the Internet is the key to upgrading the existing information system," says Margaret Hively, Bureau of Information Technology manager.

Designing a Data Model

To control this information, the team designed a geodata model to house data and rules that support the review process. The database design is based on Natural Heritage Network and NatureServe guidelines and standards. These standards are used throughout an international network that links programs in all 50 states, six Canadian provinces, and 12 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The standards allow the status of given species or natural communities to be assessed over broad geographic areas and political boundaries; conservation strategies can then be developed at the local, state, or national level.

PNHP relies on information from a wide variety of sources to develop and sustain the ongoing inventory. Species records and associated locational information ("occurrence") are initially gathered through the efforts of field biologists, botanists, zoologists, and naturalists or extracted from plant and animal specimens maintained in museums, universities, and personal collections. This data is supplemented by research, publications, and communication with knowledgeable individuals. Intensive field surveys are conducted to verify historically known plant and animal sites and to search for previously undocumented locations. Natural communities can be located through species records or a variety of other sources including air photos, soil surveys, and geologic maps. Field surveys are then conducted to identify component species and gather ecological data. PNHP is in the process of compiling an authoritative list of species that are found in Pennsylvania. This is an ongoing, multiyear effort involving many of the top commonwealth taxonomic experts on the various species groups listed. Through this science driven inventory, vital ecological resources and sites rich in natural diversity are identified, spatially located, stored in a Heritage specific GIS-enabled data management system using ArcSDE, and monitored for future conservation efforts.

Protection of the commonwealth's natural heritage can be accomplished in harmony with the need to develop and use natural resources. With objective and accurate data, PNHP can help guide planning and development while avoiding damage to unique ecological areas. PNHP also assists conservation organizations by providing information so that resources directed toward land acquisition, easements, and other agreements can be more effectively used to protect significant resources.

For more information, contact Jean Fike, Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program director (tel.: 717-783-0383, Web:, or Richard Lawrence, Esri Professional Services (e-mail:; tel.: 909-793-2853, ext. 1-1700).

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