Hub Builds Collaboration for Forest Plan
Montana's unique approach to improving forest health and reducing wildfire risk statewide includes a web-based location platform in which the state brings together forest data and makes it accessible. Forest stakeholders use the platform to collaborate on completing the 2020 Montana Forest Action Plan.
Good stewardship and management of forests is essential to many Montanans. Recreationalists; the forest products industry; federal, state, tribal, and local-level land managers; private forest landowners; representatives of conservation organizations; collaborative and watershed groups; ranchers and farmers; wildlife watchers; and other partners all have vested interests in the health of the state's forests. While these stakeholders value the state's 23 million acres of forested land in different ways, they all have a common goal—keep Montana's forests healthy and resilient.
Under the authority of the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bill, Congress tasked states and territories to assess the condition of the forests within their boundaries, regardless of ownership, and develop strategies to promote forest health and resiliency through a state forest action plan. Montana's first plans were static hard-copy or digital documents that left little room for change or making iterative versions.
When it came time to revise the Montana Forest Action Plan in 2020, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) became the principal agency responsible for the revision of the state's forest action plan. DNRC wanted to use technology that would ensure the plan's continued relevancy.
Montana's web-enabled plan would be a living document—easy to access, explore, and update. By using ArcGIS Hub applications, the 2020 revision incorporates the most up-to-date data and science as it becomes available, thereby providing accurate and timely information as Montana changes over the next decade.
More importantly, the hub will show, at landscape scales, how the Montana Forest Action Plan has changed forest health and wildfire risk and communicate that information in ways that are accessible and easily understood.
DNRC's geographic information system (GIS) team members had experience developing web mapping applications, which bolstered revision efforts. They had previously created the Montana Interactive Wildland Fire Information Tool for sharing wildfire information with fire managers, decision-makers, and the public. This web application proved its worth, particularly during the intense 2017 fire season, when thousands of individuals used it daily to see up-to-date information about fire conditions.
DNRC GIS manager Brian Collins thought a similar solution would work for the 2020 Montana Forest Action Plan. This time, he wanted to use the GIS platform to build an information center for participants to share their data, ideas, and goals.
Collins knew that buy-in from top department executives, who make decisions and build policies, would be critical to the project's success. He set up a meeting with Montana's State Forester Sonya Germann, who is the administrator of the DNRC Forestry Division. Collins pitched the idea of implementing a GIS platform to serve as a focal point, which would encourage collaboration and engagement with the Montana Forest Action Plan.
"The 2020 Montana Forest Action Plan is an opportunity to use geospatial technologies that improve planning, reporting, and understanding," Collins said.
Collins described GIS capabilities to Germann by demonstrating the functionality of ArcGIS Dashboards and ArcGIS StoryMaps from Esri. He then introduced the concept of a cloud-based engagement platform with a hub for sharing information between departments and engaging the public. It could be the venue for planning and collaboration.
ArcGIS Hub manages content and data and can display them as maps, dashboards, StoryMaps stories, documents, and website pages. Organizations use hubs to gather data for their projects and contribute their own data for others to use.
During the Montana Forest Action Plan revision process, staff and relevant partners used the hub to collaborate and share information and ideas. The public and important forest stakeholders also used the hub to engage in conversation and submit feedback.
"I explained how ArcGIS Hub consumes different types of data and then represents that information through different means, so it connects with people in ways that make sense to them," said Collins. "When it comes to communicating data, we need to make it as accessible as possible, and ArcGIS Hub allows us to do that."
State Forester Germann saw value in the technology and immediately got behind the project. The GIS platform and hub would support the Montana Forest Action Advisory Council. The council is a group assembled by Montana's governor to help develop the Forest Action Plan and implement strategies to help improve and sustain forests throughout the state. Germann also made certain that the GIS manager played a key role on the project's core team.
The DNRC GIS team implemented the ArcGIS Hub platform and used the department's existing open data to make and share maps. Data resources grew because agency partners and council members began to share authoritative open data via the hub.
Lead geospatial analyst for the Forest Action Plan team, Nick Youngstrom, said "Hub has enabled us to reduce the friction between data and the people that need to be informed by it. We've removed some of the technical knowledge and staff power needed to leverage and access geospatial information on Montana's forests."
All the council's data, as well as interactive maps and additional information, is available on the Montana Forest Action Plan website (montanaforestactionplan.org). Visitors can explore data layers used in the plan, such as wildfire hazard potential and an interactive analysis of Montana's urban forests. Participants can also dig deeper into the plan's data, using the Hub dashboard to visualize and understand information and track progress toward the accomplishment of goals and objectives set by the council. The GIS team created mapping applications to help the public better understand where projects are located and the specific goals or purposes of those projects.
Additionally, the website hosts a StoryMaps story that presents the plan's initiatives. For instance, to help illustrate the Shared Stewardship initiative, the "Finding Common Ground" story explains the concept of cross-boundary forest restoration management. Although the topic sounds daunting, the story format makes the concept understandable and engaging.
"Hub technology made this planning process, by far, the most successful effort we've had for collaborating on data collection efforts with a multitude of partners," Collins said.
The Montana Forest Action Plan is due on the governor's desk in fall 2020; but this time, the plan is a living document that can evolve with the times. Its platform serves as a nexus of information, analysis, and engagement and ensures that all Montanans have the information and resources they need to keep Montana's forests healthy and resilient.
Hub has enabled us to reduce the friction between data and the people that need to be informed by it. We’ve removed some of the technical knowledge and staff power needed to leverage and access geospatial information on Montana's forests.