Rocky Mountain Geographic Science Center
One of the key goals for the Geography Discipline is to understand past, present, and future environmental consequences of land change to support better management of their effect on people, environment, economy, and resources. In direct support of this goal, RMGSC scientists are studying human processes that drive land use change, developing monitoring systems that track change in these landscapes, and performing analyses of the effects of transportation systems on regional processes. These studies are innovative, relevant to the areas in which they occur, and also support larger national and global initiatives.
The nature of federal public land management and use in the 21st Century is fundamentally being challenged from pressures such as a changing global climate, unprecedented energy demand, rapid human population growth, persistent wildfire threats, land-use development in the Wildland-Urban Land Interface (WUI), demographic shifts, human migration and socioeconomic changes affecting everything from land management practices to the ways in which our public lands are valued and used.
Understanding landscape, socioeconomic, and demographic change is pivotal to assisting public land managers evaluate resource management conflicts, tradeoffs, costs, benefits, and impacts for future alternative land-use development scenarios.
Urban, suburban, and exurban land-use development adjacent to public lands has dramatically increased in the Western U.S. in recent decades. “Gateway Communities”; which are typically Micropolitan Statistical Areas with increasing population growth in close proximity to federal public lands, have put additional pressures on management of these lands held in trust.
Public lands in the Western U.S. provide an important access or gateway to adjacent communities and regional population centers for economic development, ecosystem services, and recreational opportunities. These lands held in trust serve to attract residents seeking natural amenities and are increasing in importance for future population migration and business location.
Deriving urban intensity indices using socioeconomic, demographic, land surface, and infrastructure parameters shall support analysis regarding the effect of different rates of population growth, economic growth and urban growth impacting Western U.S. federal public lands.
Characterizing socioeconomic, demographic, and landscape trends; that is profiles, by defining gradients of urbanization shall assist in monitoring land-use development patterns and human activities that spread beyond Gateway Communities and affect federal public land management agency jurisdictions.
Urban intensity gradients from rural to highly urbanized can potentially be used to select representative federal land management units and Gateway Communities that could potentially benefit from urban growth and land-use modeling alternative development scenario simulations.
ModWest investigation shall conduct geographic research on Gateway Community population growth, economic growth, and urban growth and associated land-use change impacts on Western U.S. public lands and resources administered by federal land management agencies. As a prototype application, USGS shall use the Grand Junction, CO community and partner with the BLM Grand Junction Field Office for modeling future landscape change for BLM’s Resource Management Planning Area. USGS shall apply an existing urban growth model from the National Land Change Community Model (NLCCM) Framework as well as develop new land-use change analysis techniques, methods, metrics, and models to improve federal land management agency geospatial capabilities for simulating future alternative urbanization scenarios and assessing the potential impacts on the region’s landscape, economy, and people.
Project Annual Reports
Grand Junction Field Office Resource Management Planning
The epidemic outbreak of mountain pine beetle (MPB) that has killed trees throughout millions of acres of lodgepole pine forest in the western Rocky Mountains has recently spread east of the Continental Divide. The native MPB causes landscape-level changes in forest conditions, with major consequences for ecological and human communities. MPB began to have major impacts on Colorado’s lodgepole forests in the late 1990s, and had killed most mature pines there by 2008. Moving east of the Divide and into lower elevations, it then began to affect mixed-conifer and ponderosa forests along Colorado’s Front Range – a region that is home to the majority of Colorado’s residents and provides critical ecosystem services to the state. Front Range forests have already experienced major natural and human-caused disturbances (drought, forest management, urbanization) including recent severe wildfires. Resource managers, residents, and policy-makers alike are concerned about the impacts of additional MPB disturbance and associated potential hazards in this economically and ecologically important region.
To evaluate MPB dynamics and consequences in Front Range mixed-conifer and ponderosa pine ecosystems, we established 80 study sites in 2009-10 throughout a 200+ mile transect of the Front Range on lands owned and managed by 9 agency partners at the federal, state, county, and city levels. We are measuring 1) the transition of MPB from its original tree host, lodgepole pine, into its second potentially major host, ponderosa pine - the dominant species throughout much of the Front Range; and 2) the effectiveness of different forest management practices in increasing resilience of ponderosa pine ecosystems to MPB. We are comparing the effects of management practices such as thinning, prescribed burning, and no active management on future MPB disturbance and forest dynamics. In 2011, we will complete our 3rd year of field data collection and begin statistical analyses. Reports, presentations, and manuscripts based on our results will be prepared in 2012. Results from this study will allow us to 1) predict landscape-level change caused by MPB, forest management, and fire; 2) evaluate probabilities of associated hazards and disruption of ecosystem services; and 3) work with our partners to assess potentially effective management and mitigation strategies.
This study was initiated in FY 2009 with a grant from the Central Region State Partnership program; primary partners include Colorado State Forest Service, Colorado State Parks, Rocky Mountain National Park , U.S. Forest Service, Colorado State University, and Boulder County Parks and Open Space. We also receive funding from the Land Remote Sensing (LRS) program to facilitate integration of our field data with remotely sensed imagery in classifications of forest landscape change.
Wyoming encompasses some of the highest-quality wildlife habitat in the Intermountain West. Lands and waters in Southwest Wyoming offer some of the country's most sought-after recreational opportunities. At the same time, this region is an active source of natural gas. With approximately 23 trillion cubic feet of natural gas used annually in the U.S., the estimated 83 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas in Southwest Wyoming will continue to account for one of the largest potential sources of natural gas in the U.S. To ensure Southwest Wyoming's wildlife and habitat remain viable in areas facing development pressure, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department have proposed the Wyoming Landscape Conservation Initiative (WLCI).
The USGS will provide multidisciplinary scientific and technical support to the WLCI and advance scientific understanding of Southwest Wyoming's ecosystems. The Rocky Mountain Geographic Science Center is participating in this effort by developing and applying simulation models of landscape change in response to future land uses and climate change to inform management. The simulation assessment is a multiyear effort initiated in FY10. Baseline geospatial information on energy-development infrastructure is being acquired through a joint effort with USGS-Fort Collins Science Center (road layer), and with novel objective extraction methods developed at RMGSC (oil/gas pad extraction – see Fig. 1). Using these data for high-potential development areas, simulation assessments of future energy development (see Fig. 2) have been performed to evaluate tipping points related to degradation of native habitats due to exotic invasives (e.g., cheat grass) under current climate (Fig. 3). Model experiments are ongoing to evaluate interactions between changes in climate, degradation of native sagebrush ecosystems, and land uses in SW Wyoming. Lessons learned from these experiments are intended to inform WLCI land mangers regarding land-uses and patterns that accelerate system degradation, and conversely, that potentially enhance system resilience.
The Effects of Energy Development Strategies studies the positive and negative effects of energy development and uses this information in regional and national assessments relevant to the administrations “New Energy Frontier” initiative. Currently EEDS research includes two main issues: wind energy, and integrated geographic assessments of energy development.
The wind research focuses on understanding how geographic features and turbine size affect the 1) land disturbance generated by wind generation facilities, and 2) the efficiencies (capacity factor) at which the facilities operate. Understanding the empirical relationships between predictors (land use, land cover, topography, wind speed, turbine size) and response (footprint and capacity factor) will allow us to model potential impacts from planned wind generation under state and national renewable energy goals.
Integrated assessments of energy development focus on developing geodatasets, tools, and geographic analyses of the impacts of energy development on other natural resources. This includes co-leadership of a Powell Center working group on this topic; collaborative research with Stanford and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to develop a web-based optimization tool for siting energy projects, and a multidisciplinary team of USGS scientists studying energy impacts on terrestrial and aquatic resources in Colorado and New Mexico and developing web-based tools to support energy-related management questions.
As part of its science strategy, the USGS is striving to develop and mainstream various aspects of ecosystem science. The new ecosystems strategy specifically identifies the development of "national ecosystem maps from a study of the connections between physiographic setting, climate, hydrologic regime, biogeochemistry, ecological processes and biotic interactions" as one of its key goals (USGS, 2007). This strategy also identifies the USGS as the global leader of a process to classify and subsequently map standardized, global ecosystems (USGS, 2007). Moreover, the ecosystems strategy is also closely linked to the Climate Variability and Change strategy as impacts to ecosystems have been identified as a priority focus of climate change studies.
In light of this new ecosystems emphasis, the Rocky Mountain Geographic Science Center (RMGSC) has become the technical lead for several ecosystems activities; establishment of a global methodology for the mapping of ecosystems, implementation of this methodology for both the contiguous United States and Africa, and implementation of a web-based ecosystem dissemination system. The results of these activities will produce standardized geospatial ecosystem models, enabling the use of ecosystem occurrences as the spatial unit of analysis for assessing climate change effects on ecosystems. Spatial data on ecosystem distributions will be useful for many applications, and will facilitate research collaborations on spatially explicit valuation of ecosystem goods and services.
A standardized, global ecosystem mapping methodology was finalized in February of 2008. This method is based on the mapping and integration of fundamental ecosystem structural elements, specifically landforms, surficial, lithology, bioclimates, soil moisture, and associated land cover as a proxy for vegetation. This approach promotes ecosystems as unique physical environments and their associated biota, and is a modification of a prototype method to map standardized, continent-wide mapping of the ecosystems of South America (Sayre et al., in press, AAG).
The RMGSC completed the implementation of this methodology for the conterminous United States in November of 2008. The first step in this implementation effort was the development/acquisition of all of the required data layers (landforms, lithology, isobioclimates, soil moisture index, etc.). Following the completion of these base layers, each was spatially combined based on the established methodology in order to produce a map of ecosystem structure units, or ecosystem footprints, which were then aggregated and labeled using the Nature Serve Ecological Systems of North America Classification (Comer et al., 2003). The process for applying these labels was developed by Patrick Comer of NatureServe, and is based on the development of "lookup" tables and rulesets linking each unique combination of ecosystem geophysical attribution to the appropriate label. The final labeled ecosystems product and each of the base data layers (landforms, surficial lithology, and isobioclimates) are now available for use by resource management and a variety of research and modeling applications like climate change assessments, ecosystems services quantification and valuation, forecasting future ecosystem condition, etc.
The final global mapping activity for the RMGSC is implementation of the global mapping methodology in Africa. But although the ecosystems effort for Africa is based on the same method used to delineate ecosystem footprints for the conterminous United States, data with a slightly coarser spatial resolution, or from different data sources, will be used. For instance, although the source elevation data for use in Africa will also be 30-meter, it's based on reflective surface information instead of bare-earth and was therefore generalized to 90-meters in order to minimize canopy issues. Completion of the Africa ecosystems activity is currently scheduled for winter of 2009.
Global Ecosystems Project
The Ecosystem Services Assessment and Valuation (ESAV) Project is designed to address both the primary research needs associated with the quantification and valuation of ecosystem services (ES), as well as the practical problems associated with utilizing ES information to inform environmental management and policy decisions. Project goals include the establishment of methods and tools for the assessment and valuation of ecosystem services, as well as the integration and utilization of ES information to improve public land and resource management decisions. Research focuses on spatial aspects of ES assessment and valuation: mapping service provisioning and values, including flows within and between ecosystems and between ecosystems and humans; assessing impacts associated with anticipated climate and landscape change; identification of effective management alternatives; spatial integration of cross-disciplinary research results; and transferability and scaling issues.
An interdisciplinary, interagency (USGS, USDA, EPA, BLM, BOR) partnership was formally established in FY09 for ES research in the San Pedro River Basin in southeastern Arizona via the Assessment of Goods and Valuation of Ecosystem Services (AGAVES). Phase 1 of a USGS-BLM pilot study in the San Pedro has been the primary ESAV contribution to the AGAVES project. This pilot study was designed to evaluate the utility of ES valuation in public lands management and planning decisions; it has just concluded an evaluation of the available tools for ES valuation in terms of their readiness for application by BLM field offices. Phase 2 is still in the planning stage, but will address a specific and pressing management issue at BLM, namely energy and minerals permitting, in an alternate geography.
The ESAV Project has also developed a GIS tool for mapping the spatial distribution of social values for ecosystems at a landscape scale. Social surveys represent the primary tool available to social scientists to gauge how humans value ecosystems, but the information they yield has rarely been used to develop spatially distributed estimates of cultural service provision by ecosystems. The Social Values for Ecosystem Services (SolVES) tool, an ArcGIS toolbar, is the first publically available tool for mapping cultural service values. It is being applied to guide U.S. Forest Service management planning, as part of a number of different domestic and international marine spatial planning efforts, and by the UNEP Climate Change and Biodiversity Programme to explore the relationship between social values and biodiversity. Version 2.0 of SolVES, with enhanced spatial modeling and more flexible value types, is due for release in FY12.
Another focus of the ESAV project is on migration and the services provided by migratory species. Migration has the potential to create spatial subsidies between areas where migratory species most provide benefits to humans and areas upon which migratory populations are most dependent. In collaboration with colleagues from the University of Arizona, we have proposed a model that can be used to quantify these subsidies, which can be used as a foundation for the establishment of conservation markets for migratory species and promote their collaborative management across political and jurisdictional boundaries. A recent USGS Powell Center grant will allow us to convene a diverse and highly talented group of scientists from around the country to refine the methods needed to apply our model for Brazilian Free-tailed bats, Monarch butterflies, and Northern Pintail ducks. We will further explore potential policy options for utilizing our results to establish international conservation markets.
SolVES - Social Values for Ecosystem Services
TRIP develops indicators that describe how the transportation network subdivides the Nation's landscape, and how this subdivision and traffic on the network influence natural resources. Examples of TRIP products are a model of remoteness (estimated access time) of a back-country-landscape, a national dataset of distance to the nearest road, and a video portraying deflation of open space along Colorado's Front Range.
Featured in the May '07 copy of
NORM ED Data
The above illustration shows a 3 km average distances to the nearest road in the conterminous 48 states.