Leaf Litter

"You Said It" Survey Results

Read what you and other Leaf Litter readers had to say about GIS and its applications to ecological restoration, conservation planning and regenerative design.

By Amy Nelson

Article Index

Thanks to so many of you for participating in our reader survey on GIS and its application to ecological restoration, conservation planning and regenerative design.

A whopping 93% of you say you have applied GIS to your work in ecological restoration, conservation planning and/or regenerative design. But how frequently do you use it? Most of you (71%) say that you incorporate GIS in 60-100% of your projects.

We were curious to know what software you use. Most of you (83%) use ESRI. 44% of you use Google Earth. Only 4% of you use IDRISI and Open Source. Other software you mentioned using included Landlogic, ArcGIS, ArcView, Garmin, and CMT

According to your responses, you use GIS in everything from county and watershed-wide analysis and planning to site-specific projects like natural resource inventories, wetland restoration and prescribed burns. Here’s how some of you described the scale of your projects that have involved GIS.

Expressing and communicating population distributions, analyzing spatial patterns of demographic rates.

City-wide green infrastructure, watershed analysis, greenway design, and park design

prioritizing and targeting areas for protection and restoration; modeling vulnerability (present and future); visualization and communication; scenario generation.

Working for the Army Corps of Engineers, projects can range from several hundred acres to 30,000 + or entire watersheds such as the Mississippi River Basin Area

conservation and reclamation abandonment and reclamation groundwater surface water biomonitoring vegetation air

We design landscape restoration plans for private land owners and, often for cities (parks primarily). The size of these properties ranges from 50 acres to 5000 acres. We use GIS to map important features of the property (karst recharge, rare plants, invasive spp., structures etc.) and relate these features to each other and to more regional features such as soils & precipitation data. The GIS helps us design recommendations specific to different areas of the property. Additionally, it helps us communicate those recommendations more effectively with the landowner.

Water quality sampling and data analysis, recycling routing, public information.

It really is a full range from small site-specific restoration sites to currently using it on a very large watershed scale. It is a nice tool to have for the smaller projects but it is very powerful for assessing information at waterhshed-level scale

NEPA document preparation and public involvement.

Water resources, floodplain mapping, hydrologic and hydraulic analysis, wetland mitigation, dam break analysis, at statewide, countywide, regional, and local scale.

73% of you say you or others you know have been able to use GIS to facilitate decision making.

54% of you say that you consistently find there to be certain data types that seem to be lacking. Here are some of the types you identified, along with your comments:

satellite imagery

Recent high-quality satellite imagery tends to be very expensive and unaffordable by independent researchers such as myself. NASA wins high marks in this regard…bravo on you in the United States for supporting this agency.

freely available high resolution (less than 5 meter) satellite imagery


LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data covering wide areas

Detailed terrain data, e.g. 2-foot contours and/or cleaned up LIDAR

DOQQ’s are 10 years old before we have public access to them; we can’t afford the “freight” on current data.

land use/land cover

up to date land cover data covering large areas (at least whole states, if not multi-state)

High resolution land use/land cover data (better than 30m resolution).

Regional land use

soil characteristics

specifically, recharge and permeability

more detailed biological and chemical data


field-truthed critical wildlife habitat

Natural Heritage (RT and E) data

human impact

growth/development modeling

water and sewer plans

wetland data inevitably is incomplete or dated; same with flooding data


elevation and hydrologic layers

consistent stream files, stream orders

high resolution hydrography data

biological stream data covering large areas

Accurate streams flow lines that are continuous especially the smallest streams.

wetland data inevitably is incomplete or dated; same with flooding data

Some areas, but not all, have ADID (Advanced Identification of Wetlands) maps

There is a lack of plant community data at scales smaller than statewide. Detailed GIS data of plant alliances and/or associations would help in our conservation and restoration planning efforts.

more detailed vegetation data

forest community data in Ohio

On a related note…in addition to the items mentioned above, here’s what you say you wish existed (in terms of GIS software/tools) that could help your in ecological restoration, conservation planning and regenerative design work: 

Clean, inexpensive, user-interface that would allow someone who does not own or have experience with the full GIS suite offered up by ESRI, so that they can easily view data layers and self-query.

Specific locations of endangered/threatened species (surveyed areas, documented presence locations)

I would like to see more effort in the realm of secondary and cumulative impact analysis and projects from proposed projects.

One of the issues with Current GIS software is that you have to work with the extents of Data that you have. Clipping data to site specific use is cumbersome and time consuming. I think making that easier would go a long way in facilitating more GIS use.

More frequent and higher resolution aerial photographs. Heck, a live feed would be great.

Open source map-making software

I’d like to see watershed visualization tools, though Spatial Analyst is pretty close; with increased flooding, communities need to see how the problems are compounded within the watershed and mapping can facilitate that process, especially when it is a bird’s eye view

Thanks to this Leaf Litter reader for reminding us how far we have come:

I wish I could have had GIS software in 1987! Then again I wish I could have owned my own personal computer then… Very frankly, GIS software has dramatically improved my ability to work and indeed to conceptualize geographic data.

With the exception of one reader, you were split right down the middle when we asked if you often find that data is too broad-based to be useful on a site- specific project. Here are some of your comments:

The scale needs to be useful. A 30-m digital elevation model is not very useful in identifying real water runoff patterns.

Available soils data is often much too broad…on site evaluation a must.

Existing GIS data often provides a solid starting point for projects. We do perform field work and assessments to get the level of detail required for most projects.

The answer here is really, sometimes. The data layers we use most often are soils, hydrology, elevation and aerials, and in general they are specific enough for our projects. We sometimes run into trouble when we need to use streets or city parcel layers. They are often not quite recent enough for our needs.

Among those of you who work with datasets, 95 % say that you consider metadata useful when you use datasets created by an outside source other than U.S. government. Here are some comments:

Yes we need metadata for accurate transfer and checking of inputs and outputs.

Metadata is vital to understanding how a dataset was created and its intended purposes

I think metadata is essential.

Metadata is almost always helpful. It is also almost universally absent from the datasets I receive and work with from many different sources.

However, metadata can have its drawbacks, as some of you point out:

Sometimes it is difficult to interpret

[Its usefulness] depends on the accuracy of the information at the time it was generated. We have often had to make corrections to datasets after field verification indicates differently than what was provided.

I prefer very brief descriptions of what the data actually is; not long lists of virtually useless information.

Of those of you who work with datasets, 65% say that when you create your own datasets, you provide metadata that you believe is detailed enough to be used by others.

I provide detailed metadata for the datasets that I maintain.

We do provide metadata, but there needs to be standardization of metadata across agencies/users.

Yes, especially for FEMA DFIRM databases.

We asked what you consider to be the greatest barrier to incorporating GIS into ecological restoration, conservation planning and/or regenerative design. Here’s how your responses broke down:

30%     Lack of accessible and/or available quality data

22%     Lack of technical expertise

19%     Lack of funding (for infrastructure, software, licenses, etc.)

11%     Perception of the complexity of GIS (resistance to/fear of technology)

9%    Inability to maintain georeferenced data

9%    General lack of knowledge about the benefits of using GIS

When we asked what you would like to learn about the application of GIS to ecological restoration, conservation planning and regenerative design, many of you said you wanted to learn more about how people in our fields are using GIS effectively and efficiently. We hope that we have provided effective examples in this and other sections of Leaf Litter. Many of you also requested the need for information on ensuring data accuracy and standardization. Several of you say you are looking for educational resources and new sources for data. Please check out the Resources section of Leaf Litter, where you’ll find links on all of these topics. As always, we thank you for participating in our reader survey and helping us shed some light and share information on this complex topic.

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