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Paul Tessar Is the Johnny Appleseed of GIS

photoi of Paul Tessar

Paul Tessar

Driven by a hunger for challenge and a desire to bring a fresh perspective to new organizations, Paul Tessar traveled through the heartland of the United States like the legendary Johnny Appleseed, seeding state and local agencies, not with apple trees but with the ability to harness GIS capabilities for planning and cooperation. Tessar has cultivated successful GIS programs in Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, but it was the state of Illinois where it all started.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Tessar continued to study urban and regional planning. "I've always been fascinated with cities and the built environment," Tessar notes, professing his drive to contribute to thoughtful urban arrangements.

Enabling Foresight in Government Agencies

In 1974, with his master's degree in urban and regional planning in hand, Tessar went to work for the South Dakota State Planning Bureau.

In South Dakota, Tessar used self-developed image processing software to generate statewide map layers for use in a land resource information system. He created and proffered soil classification and elevation map layers for use in land suitability analysis by South Dakota regional planning agencies. Using this dataset in conjunction with satellite-derived land-cover layers, Tessar and his team developed a "grid GIS approach to spatially solving the Universal Soil Loss Equation [USLE]." Tessar provided the resultant data to regional and local planners, empowering them to envision intuitive and farsighted urban development.

"I use GIS to facilitate superior outcomes," Tessar says. "As powerful as it is, GIS is the means, and better decision making is the end."

DenverGIS enhances communication by integrating centerlines between jurisdictions.

DenverGIS enhances communication by integrating centerlines between jurisdictions.

Just as impressive as Tessar's proactive effort to enable well-informed decision making is the context in which he worked. Completed more than 35 years ago, his work on the USLE predated digitizing tablets and prevalent commercial GIS use, requiring that Tessar's team members hand code soil survey information into 10-acre grid cells and shepherd governmental use of GIS. South Dakota rewarded his accomplishments by naming him State Employee of the Month.

Using GIS to Reinforce Interdisciplinary Prosperity

In the early '80s, Tessar went to work for the Arizona State Land Department (SLD), where previous attempts to build a comprehensive GIS program had fallen short of fruition. In just three years, Tessar was able to establish a thorough and effective GIS program that is still in place to this day. His efforts at the Arizona SLD were recognized with a Citation of Merit from Governor Bruce Babbitt.

In addition to outfitting the Arizona SLD with valuable GIS capabilities, Tessar analyzed developable lands and ongoing revenue generation for state trust lands. Profits garnered from the state land trust went to supporting public education in Arizona. Working in conjunction with Arizona State Land Department commissioner Robert Lane, Tessar used GIS to manage public lands for long-term sustainability while simultaneously increasing revenues.

"GIS is not just manipulating data for planning and decision making," Tessar says. "It is actually a platform for collaboration, where the cooperative efforts it facilitates are just as significant, if not more so, than the base knowledge that supports their functioning."

The next few years saw Tessar move to Minnesota for a stint with the Minnesota State Planning Agency, Land Management Information Center, and then to Wisconsin, where he worked with the State Department of Natural Resources (DNR). In a collaborative effort with DNR agency management, Tessar cultivated a statewide GIS co-op called WISCLAND, the Wisconsin Initiative for Statewide Cooperation for Landscape Analysis and Data. Along with the rest of the co-op, Tessar helped establish a natural resource information system, abounding with original statewide data. This data was put to a myriad of uses by DNR staff: Wildlife management employees modeled habitat carrying capacity and animal population to determine the appropriate number of deer licenses to grant, water resources management staff determined soil erosion hazards threatening surface water quality and ways to mitigate them, and air quality managers modeled non-point ozone sources to address air quality issues.

"Our mission was to provide GIS support to planning, management, analysis, modeling, and decision-making functions for a broad array of programs in the traditional areas of conservation agencies—parks, wildlife, fisheries, water resources, wetlands—as well as newer environmental areas, such as water quality, air quality, solid waste, and hazardous materials," Tessar says.

While working for DNR, Tessar returned to school for a second master's degree in environmental monitoring—an ecology-oriented GIS and remote-sensing program housed at the University of Wisconsin Institute for Environmental Studies.

Maintaining a Thriving Civic Ecology by Encouraging Dialog

In his current position as the GIS data administrator for DenverGIS, a technology service agency of the City and County of Denver, Tessar applies his GIS savvy to maintain a vibrant urban structure.

"We use GIS as a tool to build a better model of the reality of our city," Tessar says. "GIS is about crafting a representation of our shared reality. Whether you work at the local, regional, state, national, or global scale, this is often the task that precedes planning and engineering a better future. Not only does GIS provide the tools to capture that model of reality, it provides the capabilities to manipulate it for a purpose."

In his recent efforts, Tessar has focused on enhancing regional GIS data interoperability. The Colorado Homeland Security North Central Region (NCR) has developed a regional GIS data repository for the 10-county Greater Denver metro area. The member counties provide more than 20 shared GIS layers on the NCR ArcGIS software-based site. A current endeavor coordinated by the NCR GIS steering committee, which Tessar chairs, involves the 10 NCR counties, 3 neighboring counties, and 16 cities. This group, representing all local jurisdictions that maintain GIS centerline layers on regional county boundaries, is collaborating to establish "agreement points" along 750 miles of common borders. All the participants in this regional partnership plan to snap their centerlines to the 2,100-plus points to form a seamless regional streets layer to be hosted at the NCR repository.

Leaving a Legacy of Cooperation

Tessar's passion for using GIS to create a platform for multijurisdictional communication and collaboration is highly evident from the fruitful GIS programs he has left in his wake. "Paul's hard work has created a solid framework for future cooperation," notes Ryan Huffman of the Public Works and Development Department of Arapahoe County. Tessar credits his ability to infuse diverse agencies with GIS capabilities to his skill in perceiving receptive individuals and identifying common interests.

"GIS allows each group to express its understanding of reality, structure, process, and function in specific areas," says Tessar. "As the disciplines work together, they begin to develop more of a common world view and a better understanding of the other disciplines. All of the '-ologists,' '-ographers,' '-ticians,' and '-tists' can get together and satisfy their hunger for creating positive change. They can come to a common understanding and optimize for the best solution within the resource constraints they're working with." These are the fruits of the "orchards" Tessar has planted in the heartland.

For more information, contact Paul Tessar (e-mail:

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