ArcNews Online

Winter 2005/2006

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At the Crossroads

Protecting Signature Landscapes, Natural Resources, and Habitats

The development of GIS has been crucial to conservation planning efforts and the protection of natural resources and habitats in the United States. Using GIS to assemble, analyze, and distribute geospatial information has allowed practically all public agencies and nongovernmental organizations to begin working with stakeholders to protect finite yet diminishing resources. However, the intrinsic landscape formations and features that define the identity or the signature of each local region are not being recognized. As a consequence, people are not making a connection with their signature landscapes.

Only by understanding the geography can individuals identify the features inherent, or intrinsic, to the landscape itself. This realization has been instrumental to the protection of the most celebrated landscapes. Thomas Jefferson's purchase of the Natural Bridge in 1774 was driven by his realization of the existence of the "most sublime of nature's works." H. W. S. Cleveland's plan for the park systems of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1888 was based on the identification of landscape formations, such as the ring of glacial pothole lakes in the Minnehaha watershed that could serve as an armature around which to design the city and to shape future growth. O. C. Simonds and Jens Jenson both continued the argument that planning will be successful only by understanding, revealing, and preserving landscape forms and scenery that reflect the local and regional character of a place.

By measuring and monitoring the intrinsic aesthetic landscapes so that others can see them as a diminishing resource, GIS analysts can provide community leaders with a more comprehensive form of mapping that supports discussions for conservation and protection of regional landscape treasures.

Many land trust and conservation groups, such as the Nisqually River Council, Trust for Public Land, and Washington State Department of Natural Resources, are realizing the value that interpreting the intrinsic landscape can have toward their goals and missions. By identifying these resources—how they are seen, determining which are rare, and how people value them—conservation organizations can then prioritize their conservation strategies.

The typical scientific analysis of an ecosystem helps people understand how the system behaves and what contributes to its health but doesn't give an understanding of how different regional landscapes have their own intrinsic or inherent characteristic aesthetic resources. What is critical in protecting scenic and culturally sensitive lands is to catalog the places that are the best examples of the regional and signature landscapes and to help communities understand how these rare landscape features compare to those in their own subregions; larger regions; and, in fact, the world.

Identifying signature landscapes that define the nature of different subregions' formations of aesthetic significance—such as coves, river mouths, lagoons, narrow waterways, beaches, spits, bars, tombolos, sea bluffs, peaks, ridges, salt marshes, Garry oak savanna, salt prairies, basalt capes, large sea stacks, and sand dunes—helps us protect the quality of our environment.

For more information, contact Grant R. Jones, FASLA, founding partner, Jones & Jones (e-mail:, or Christopher L. Overdorf, ASLA, senior associate, Jones & Jones (e-mail:, Web:

See also "For Puget Sound, Washington, GIS and Modeling Are Protecting and Restoring Shorelines and Open Spaces."

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