US Forest Service Sees Regional Horizons

Southwest Foresters Round Up Data


  • Geodatabase migration improves region-wide data access.
  • The riparian mapping project's imagery inventory and modeling shows relationships.
  • A website drives geographic approach for forestry operations, management, and sciences.

The United States Forest Service (USFS) has been using GIS in various forms throughout its nine regions in the continental United States and Alaska. Public lands in USFS' national forests are vast, encompassing 193 million acres. GIS helps USFS meet long-term natural resource management goals for these lands.

Federal GIS logoThe USFS Southwestern Region (Region 3) is the first USFS region to standardize its data by putting it into an ArcGIS geodatabase. The region includes Arizona and New Mexico and parts of Texas and Oklahoma, with a total of 11 national forests and 3 national grasslands. The region's GIS is a strong model for other regions to follow. The reason is that foresters using ArcGIS can better manage data, perform analysis, and generate reports and maps that are useful to managers and resource specialists for making decisions about land management activities.

The region's GIS is a distributed enterprise system, with each national forest having its own GIS geodatabase. Because all these geodatabases have been built using the same standard, forests can easily share data with the regional server, which is located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This makes it simple for forest managers to quickly access ecological data across the region and develop both local and regional views of forest and grasslands. This improves project planning, such as campground and road design, long-range planning, and inventory and assessment. GIS users can monitor land use and natural resources, analyze heritage and cultural sites, assess watersheds, and support other USFS activities and missions.

The GIS enterprise system puts geographic analysis into the hands of forest personnel and provides natural resource data to the public. Getting to the point of reaping these advantages takes time and effort to develop standard data dictionaries and schemas. In addition, shapefiles and coverages must be migrated to the geodatabase.

The Rangeland Allotment data layer helps foresters understand land use.

The USFS Rangeland Allotment data layer helps foresters understand land use. Inset: Feature coordinates are captured in the field and uploaded to the geodatabase.

Working with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Esri Professional Services, the region was able to set up data standards. The GIS program manager for the Southwestern Region, Candace Bogart, explains the work involved. "It took our team of five people three and a half years to complete the data migration. We designed a data dictionary that includes 15 themes. We made all the data digital and put everything in the same format. As for the return on investment—oh my gosh, I can't even quantify it. We are really harvesting the fruit of all that labor."

A geodatabase enables users to maintain integrity of spatial data with a consistent, accurate database. It provides a multiuser access and editing environment. This capability is highly valuable, since each forest agency is responsible for its database management and editing. Quality assurance tools from Esri Production Mapping were implemented for the project.

Today, more than 450 USFS staff members use the enterprise GIS. USFS invited AllPoints GIS, an Esri Partner based in Denver, Colorado, to write a training program and hold workshops. Participants work with their own forestry data in class and are therefore able to start working on their projects immediately. It has been much easier and more efficient for the Southwestern Region to contract with AllPoints for the training program than to have its own staff conduct this training.

Each of the regions' forest supervisors' offices has its own server. The regional office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has a central AIX server that brings the distributed data together and enables users to access it via an internal network. If, for instance, the GIS team needs to do road editing for an area in the Coronado forest, it accesses the Coronado regional office's geodatabase. Because the structure of each forest's database is the same, data is easy to access and use.

The USFS Southwestern Region puts ArcGIS to work for a variety of forestry purposes. For a riparian mapping project, forest service ecologists wanted to know the location and attributes of the region's riparian vegetation. Because this region has a lot of desert area, it is important to know where the riparian areas are to monitor and preserve them. They used data elevation models in the GIS to calculate valley bottom models and then construct indexes for wetness, adjacency, and steepness to create a data layer of valley bottoms. Another layer contains vegetation data. A relationship of valley bottoms and vegetation was shown for a watershed. Large-scale aerial photography was also added to the project.

Making data available to the public is also an important part of the USFS Southwestern Region GIS staff's work. Using Esri Production Mapping, they export their region-wide and individual forest datasets to shapefiles and post them on their website for public consumption. Scientists, academics, and contractors can go to, click GIS, and use the datasets for research and business purposes. The USFS Southwestern Region is using ArcGIS for forestry inventory and land management planning. An online, interactive map helps staff access this information for developing a forest plan. Forest plan information is posted and viewed by the public via a GIS viewer that provides basic tools for panning, zooming, and layering data. The public can go to

For more information, contact Candace Bogart, regional GIS program manager, USDA Forest Service Southwestern Region (e-mail: Bogart, who provided much of the information for this article, acknowledges the work of Geospatial Services Technology Center and especially Aaron Stanford, who created a template for the forest plan revision site that enabled the R3 data to be dropped into the template and uploaded. She also acknowledges USFS Southwestern Region's planning staff, Reuben Weisz, and the region's GIS staff.

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