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Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

“GIS...An organized collection of computer hardware, software, geographic data, and personnel designed to efficiently capture, store, update, manipulate, analyze, and display all forms of geographically referenced information.”

-ESRI "Glossary of GIS terms"

GIS technology enables forest professionals and concerned citizens to view, in map overlays, the complex variables of forest ecosystems. Studying different combinations of overlays helps people understand the effects of changes in one or more variables on the system as a whole or other particular part. A GIS makes it possible to link, or integrate, information that is difficult to associate through any other means.

Some of the variables considered in GIS analysis of ponderosa pine forests include: old-growth rarity, meadow shrinkage due to tree encroachment, and spatial patterns of age-class distributions. Patterns of biodiversity, habitat characteristics, and fire behavior can be manipulated in map displays to simulate the effects of management strategies on forest structure, composition and processes.

Painted shaded relief map image of the Southwestern Region with the National Forests shown in blue
Painted shaded relief map image of the Southwestern Region with the National Forests shown in blue. Courtesy USDA Forest Service Southwestern Region.

Because GIS displays information pictorially (geospatially) a more intuitive grasp of interactions in forest systems becomes possible. GIS can help bridge the information gap that often exists between forest professionals and the general public. Community consensus building is enhanced when people can see, first-hand, modeled effects of forest treatments on wild life, biodiversity, old growth patterns, hydrology, and fire threat.

The ForestERA Project is a premier example of GIS technology employed in forest management:

“The goal of this effort is to provide a framework for assessing the impacts and implications of ponderosa pine restoration treatments at landscape and regional scales. This framework will provide a data-based means for analyzing cumulative effects of multiple restoration treatments, and a means of integrating consideration of fire and forest ecology with consideration of wildlife and biodiversity issues. The Forest Ecosystem Restoration Analysis (ForestERA) project will provide a landscape ecology framework to help guide the location and timing of restoration treatments in ponderosa pine forests across northern Arizona and in contiguous areas of adjacent states.”


Carrell, Jennifer. "GIS Applications in Wildland Fire Management." 5/5/03. A bibliography highlighting some works from the scientific literature that address GIS in the various aspects of fire management.

ESRI. “What is GIS?” 4/22/03. Website explains what GIS is, how it works, and what it’s used for. Links to product information.

ForestERA. 2003. 4/22/03. Forest Ecosystem Restoration Analysis website. Describes GIS at work in modeling restoration of ponderosa pine forests.

GIS Lounge. 2003. “What is GIS?” 4/22/03. “GIS Lounge is a GIS information portal. The purpose of this site is to provide introductory text for issues relating to GIS as well as pointers to further information. This site is run by Caitlin Dempsey.”

Green, Kass, M. Finney, and J. Campbell. 1995. FIRE! Using GIS to predict fire behavior. Journal of Forestry 93(5): 21-28.

U.S. Geological Survey. 2002. “Geographic Information Systems.” 4/22/03. Describes history and uses of GIS.


Last edited May 21, 2003

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NAU's Program in Community, Culture and Environment Northern Arizona University