“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” —John Muir
The Nature Conservancy program that I work for — LANDFIRE — just hit the 10-year mark, and that birthday got me to thinking.
About origin stories. About ideas that are so simple, they’re obvious — but only after the fact. About how great need prompts great action. About how everything is hitched to everything else, once you look closely enough. Landmark birthdays are excellent prompts for us to connect the dots, to find out how we got here, and then look at where we can go.
First, the obvious: Our livelihood — our very lives — depends on grasslands, shrublands and forests, all kinds of living connections that have nothing to do with politics or ownership, that have their own integrity, that recognize no boundaries.
Health and hardship spill over and swap across landscapes and watersheds all the time. At the Conservancy, we know that restoring, managing and conserving land and water requires knowledge and insight that extend beyond boundaries as well.
Then, the origin of my program — great need.
At LANDFIRE’s decade mark, I’m proud to work with great people on a project that spans all 50 states. What I do is connected to my home, my neighborhood, my city, my state and beyond those boundaries.
I make models that change the way people manage land, but before LANDFIRE made that possible, we worked with next-to-nothing in terms of scientifically based data. The fact that I did without that foundation makes me all the more appreciative.
In graduate school I studied soil fungi (mycorrhiza — see photo below), assuming that U.S. ecosystems had already been mapped and described.
Moving from researching microbes to conserving landscapes, I soon learned I was wrong.
My first job with The Nature Conservancy was to help large industrial land managers such as MeadWestvaco and International Paper explore opportunities across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to conserve wildlife habitat, protect landscape features such as wolf dens, and ensure that all ecosystems there had representation.
To do that, we needed a common vegetation dataset that covered both the lands that those managers owned and the lands in-between as well — something that told us, for example, which ecosystems were under- and which were over-represented on the landscape. Data was either non-existent, or when it did exist, often collected in different ways for different reasons.
But a common dataset did not exist. Instead, the situation for restoration in the U.S. prior to LANDFIRE was chaotic.
To understand just HOW nuts it was, imagine a grocer stocking shelves using only information provided by a handful of vendors. Not only that, but recording the grocery stock varies — some vendors count individual cans, some count cases, some report by volume (quarts, liters) and others by weight (pounds, kilos). And just because vendors report inventory delivered, that doesn’t mean the totals are correct, or that the grocers who received the deliveries agree with the count.
In the MeadWestvaco and International Paper case, the companies had robust inventories of their own lands, but these datasets were not compatible, and there were no data for the private non-industrial lands. We could either compare cases to cans or make huge assumptions.
Making the ‘Encyclopedia of Ecosystems’
Then I heard about “LANDFIRE.” The idea was the brainchild of great scientific minds at The Nature Conservancy and federal agencies, and was envisioned as a suite of tools to support land management efforts that would reduce wildfire risk.
I joined up as fast as I could, because it was not only the answer to my first job’s immediate problem, but I could see LANDFIRE’s huge potential to be beneficial to conservation and restoration in situations beyond fire as well.
The Conservancy’s first major role in the LANDFIRE project was to describe how all 1,800+ ecosystems in the U.S. looked and worked when functioning “naturally,” i.e., before invasives, fire suppression or large-scale logging.
The result was the first national “Encyclopedia of Ecosystems,” and it was initially used to create a dataset called “Vegetation Departure” that compared current conditions for these ecosystems to the “natural” or “reference” conditions.
Vegetation Departure has been immensely significant to the cause of conservation. For instance, it informed the creation in 2000 of the U.S. National Fire Plan — a long-term national strategy for reducing the catastrophic impacts of wildfires. It also continues to provide conservationists targets for their restoration work.
The Pressure Cooker of Creating Reference Condition Info
Creation of these reference conditions was a wild ride, starting with the sheer volume of information.
Working with more than 700 experts via 40+ workshops, 35+ WebExes, and innumerable phone calls and individual visits, the six-person Conservancy LANDFIRE team assembled, wrote and delivered seven ecosystem descriptions and models each week — 100-300 pages — for 183 weeks running.
The pressure was on: a number of important products (such as the map of these ecosystems and their associated fire regimes) were relying on fast delivery of the information, and every bit of it had to be peer-reviewed and checked for accuracy.
Being late or wrong threw off the whole process. In the end of the first phase, we had an amazing record, delivering “final” or at the least “workable” drafts on schedule and within budget every time.
On the flip side, people were suddenly jockeying to sit next to me, a budding ecologist, at meals during my first LANDFIRE workshop for experts. I wondered what was going on until I learned that the outcomes of our models and descriptions had important budget implications for these managers.
But LANDFIRE’s rigorous system of workshops, peer review, QA/QC and internal review gave us a strong scientific buffer from the pressure we all felt. Additionally, our models were and are informed by literature review, local datasets and general ecological principles.
At last, grocers, vendors, inventories and deliveries were all on the same page, and data sheets could be balanced with a high degree of accuracy and agreement.
Mapping Bighorn Sheep Viability to Pollinator Habitat and More
The models and descriptions the LANDFIRE team developed not only fed into the Vegetation Departure dataset, but also contributed to building other important ecological datasets, including three for historic fire regimes and the current data showing the developmental stages of each ecosystem in the United States.
These datasets paint a picture of the entire landscape. They are not only beautiful, but allow conservationists to understand what they are dealing with.
For example, the current data has allowed agency, academic and NGO partners to better monitor conditions along the Appalachian Trail — a huge area covering many ownerships and political boundaries (see LANDFIRE data in Appalachian Trail Mapping Viewer). LANDFIRE data spans them all.
Our colleagues at the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Geological Survey then took our work and turned it into a staggering output of maps — 2.43 billion acres mapped in total (that’s 44,000 satellite images processed), including 25 spatial datasets, each covering the United States.
A visit to our WHAM! (Web Hosted Applications Map) offers a snapshot of some of our favorite LANDFIRE data uses, ranging from understanding bighorn sheep viability in Idaho to mapping wildland fire potential for the entire country to understanding wildland habitat value for pollinators in California.
The bottom line: the Conservancy believes that conservation must be practiced within context. It’s not just about special plants, wildlife and services that nature might provide in a particular place, but how they fit into the entire landscape and how all the activities on that landscape impact its ecological function. LANDFIRE products have and still are enabling that approach.
While the process was stressful for all of us, I can’t help but think of those crazy early days as rewarding. We were doing something that had never been done before. Along the way we forged great friendships and learned a lot about ecology and ourselves.
Data + Maps = Collaboration
LANDFIRE’s work didn’t end with that first great push. All this great data doesn’t sell or explain itself, so the Conservancy’s LANDFIRE team works hard to promote appropriate and innovative uses for LANDFIRE products that also have conservation benefits.
For example, LANDFIRE recently has filled data gaps for forest restoration in Colorado’s Upper Monument Creek (UMC), a high-priority landscape for conservation within the Pike National Forest that has also experienced some severe and expensive wildfires such as the infamous “Waldo Canyon Fire” of 2012.
After that fire, the UMC Landscape Restoration Initiative was launched to accelerate the pace of forest restoration through data-informed prioritization of “what to do where.”
The work required extensive datasets — not all of which the initiative’s partners had. LANDFIRE was the source of these missing datasets, helping to set the stage for specific restoration recommendations and a better understanding of how a lack of restoration in the UMC could put people, water and wildlife at risk. (See a map I created for this effort at the top of this post.)
It’s been particularly cool throughout my LANDFIRE decade to learn how spatial data and ecological computer models can really spur collaborative problem-solving among people who don’t always see eye-to-eye. While I’ve written before about how important coffee and beer are to successful conservation, I now add maps to that list.
One of my favorite examples of LANDFIRE-spurred problem-solving has occurred in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest, a beautiful area heavily impacted by invasive species, climate change and altered fire regimes.
Conflicting visions among stakeholders for the forest were making restoration or other conservation action difficult to impossible. In fact, there have been numerous lawsuits filed against the National Forest. (Read more about it here. It was a dire situation.)
In the face of this gridlock, the Conservancy and the USFS formed the Cherokee National Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative. The initiative took data from LANDFIRE as well as process the Conservancy helped develop known as Landscape Conservation ForecastingTM (LCF) and built models from it for potential futures for the forest, generating robust “straw men” for the stakeholder group to react to, instead of to each other or the USFS.
The process of assessing the models brought people together and resulted in a report (found here) that lays the groundwork for restoration and future collaboration. I won’t say that LANDFIRE maps are magical, but they are beautiful and offer a wonderful way for people to explore a landscape and the issues they face together. People love them and are moved to action by them.
The Team and the Next LANDFIRE Decade
Today, our Conservancy LANDFIRE team includes three full-time and two part time people; I think of us as the “little team that could.” We are Jeannie Patton, Kori Blankenship, Sarah Hagen, yours truly and our leader Jim Smith, a man with decades of mapping experience, credibility with a wide range of partners, a great sense of humor and an award named after him (James L. Smith Medal for Early Career Scientists).
In the next decade, the LANDFIRE takes on new challenges, not the least of which began this year: a total remap of our datasets that will include new satellite imagery from LANDSAT 8 and will incorporate the best mapping technologies possible.
The Conservancy is about special places, their contexts, and the people who use the best available science to determine the future. My LANDFIRE decade has allowed me to help bring all those elements together in ways that often produce great results. I’ve loved it, and I can’t imagine conservation without it.
Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.