We believe that BLM policy decisions should be made using the most up-to-date and accurate data available in order to make the best decisions for the management of public lands. It is important for the public to be able to access this data."
PEER Uses GIS to Reveal Critical Agency Data | Urges Informed Management for the Health of Western Lands
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the largest land management agency in the United States, managing 245 million acres of public land. Of this, approximately 155 million acres are leased to private individuals to use for livestock. There are 21,000 grazing allotments found on public lands in 13 western states, and rangeland health is critical.
Rangeland health is defined by the BLM by its Land Health Standards (LHS), which assess the quality and sustainability of the range's waterways, habitats, soil, flora, and fauna. For the public and the agency to evaluate the status of the rangelands, there is a need for a centralized, visual compilation of the agency's data on the rangeland health of each allotment. The agency's data reveals that many allotments are failing to meet the LHS, and BLM has determined that livestock grazing is a significant factor.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a service organization that assists current and former government employees who seek a higher level of environmental ethics and scientific integrity in their work. PEER is dedicated to upholding environmental laws and values for environmental and public health professionals, land managers, scientists, enforcement officers, and other civil servants. It also collaborates with the government and works with current and former federal, state, local, and tribal employees.
Applying GIS to Store and Manage Data
The Bureau of Land Management has not centralized the land health evaluations, and much of the data is kept in field offices across the West. PEER turned to geographic information system (GIS) technology to transform BLM's data into information it can use to
- Understand the status, condition, and trend of resources of BLM lands.
- Influence BLM's leadership to make data-informed management decisions.
- Identify where rangelands are failing to meet land health standards.
- Build awareness of the condition of allotments across the 13 states.
- Improve conservation practices and policies on public lands.
ArcGIS is a mission-driven enterprise solution that supports market research, field operations, communications, and public engagement, as well as improving the efficiency and effectiveness of programs across the organization. This technology provided the foundation for leveraging authoritative data, collecting data, analyzing existing data, and determining the impact of conservation practices and policies. Viewed through a geographic lens, PEER's data transformed how the public perceives BLM's management of public lands and how the agency justifies where practices and policies need to be prioritized.
Identifying the Allotments' Health Status
"We believe that BLM policy decisions should be made using the most up-to-date and accurate data available in order to make the best decisions for the management of public lands." Said Chandra Rosenthal, director of PEER's Rocky Mountain regional office. "It is important for the public to be able to access this data."
PEER obtained the Bureau of Land Management data from each western state and field office for 21,000 allotments through multiple public record requests, compiled it, corrected errors, and updated the data. Once the data was compiled, PEER created an ArcGIS Online map of the agency's data to display the rangeland health of each allotment. The BLM Rangeland Health Status map has six symbols that are part of the map legend and correspond to the following: all standards were met; the determination was not complete; standards were not met due to factors such as livestock; standards were not met due to other causes, such as fire or invasive species; standards were not met, the cause not being identified; and lastly, other factors.
Sharing Data Visualization to Increase Response
All this data was plotted using a publicly accessible interactive web-based tool, ArcGIS StoryMaps, allowing users to explore and analyze data alongside other federal GIS mapping layers such as National Wilderness Areas, Wild Horse Management areas, Greater Sage-Grouse habitat, and a recent US Drought Monitor map. Applying a broad-scale geographic lens to make data-informed decisions has generated new insights. For example, the agency has a large-scale program to remove entire herds of wild horses from public lands because the assumption was that horses were causing land health damage; however, after analyzing the data from each field office's reports, it was recommended that this policy decision should be revisited.
"We urge the Bureau of Land Management to improve its data collection, mapping efforts, and take management actions to prioritize the areas that have yet to be assessed and those failing land health standards," stated Rosenthal.
PEER's analysis of western states' data has helped identify where land health standards have not been met. This analysis can influence policies for the BLM to look at individual allotment management and change the terms of a land lease, the amount of time livestock can be on the land, or the number of livestock allowed on the land. Additionally, these newly centralized BLM records can be used more broadly to demonstrate the dire need for reform in the livestock grazing program.
Through mapping, PEER has illustrated the health status of all rangelands across the 13 western states. The hope is that the Bureau of Land Management will look at broader trends to determine what can be changed to result in fewer allotment failures. The flexibility of ArcGIS StoryMaps allows decision-makers and the public to examine the health of public lands using the rich geodatabase created by PEER.