GIS: A Vital Tool for Forest Management

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Forests in the United States are under threat. Fire is changing the nation’s forest landscape, while forest health is succumbing to warmer weather patterns. Faced with challenges of such magnitude, James E. Hubbard, the deputy chief for state and private forestry for the US Forest Service (USFS), believes that GIS is the key to forest management.James E. Hubbard, the deputy chief for state and private forestry for the US Forest Service, believes that GIS is the key to forest management.

Hubbard is responsible for fire and aviation management, cooperative forestry programs, forest health protection, conservation education, urban and community forestry, and the Office of Tribal Relations. He formulates his thinking on the premise that everything in the forest is geographically based. Thus, decision-making processes—from planning fire management to policy making—must incorporate scientific geographic analysis.

“GIS is mission critical for fire management and response,” Hubbard said.

The Forest Service also partners with the US Department of the Interior in the LANDFIRE program, a decision support system for wildfire management. Using GIS to manage annually updated survey data, the program produces maps about vegetation and fire fuel characteristics across the country. It includes weather factors and predicts potential wildfire activity 10 days out.

With LANDFIRE, firefighters and land managers know what to expect, which actions to take, and their probability of success. They know how to best position fire suppression resources and set priorities for hazard reduction activities, such as removing fuel and conducting controlled burns. All that leads to better approaches to fighting fires, managing risk, and ensuring successful outcomes.

(This Esri Story Map app lets users click on various locations to see insects that affect forests in those areas and learn about diseases that are contributing to forest decline. (Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources—Forestry.)

Using maps like this one, which illustrates fire potential and forest risks from insects and disease, the USFS helps private forestland owners manage their properties and works with communities to build public policy. With GIS contextualizing forestland dynamics for land managers, firefighters, policy makers, and the public, everyone is more capable of protecting and preserving America’s forests as well as preparing for any more changes to come.



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