If you were a bird flying over Utah, what would you see? USU researcher uses GIS technology – and a lot of hard work – to create a complete land and air view of Utah

by Kinsey Love

Most people would agree that a bird’s eye view is the best vantage point for most landscapes. An aerial view provides unobstructed panoramas of farmlands, cities, civilization or wilderness. Since most people do not own their own airplanes, however, getting that bird’s eye view can be tricky.

Doug Ramsey, USU researcher and professor in the department of wildland resources, has found that the key to getting that coveted view isn’t found in the skies, but rather, in your computer. Ramsey and his team at USU’s Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) lab have made it possible for anyone with Internet access to view the state of Utah and parts of the western United States from the sky without leaving the office.

“We wanted to develop something that any person could access without having the specific tools, hardware or software, and expertise needed for GIS and remote sensing activities,” said Ramsey about his team’s overall goal.

As director of the RS/GIS lab, Ramsey and his team—consisting of Chris Garrard, head programmer; John Lowry, associate director of the lab; and various graduate students—have been able to procure the funding needed to create online programs that house thousands of aerial images of Utah and surrounding areas. The lab hosts numerous web sites on their server, but some of Ramsey’s most-used web sites are Virtual Utah and the Southwest Regional Gap Analysis Project.

Virtual Utah (earth.gis.usu.edu/utah) is a web application that hosts images of Utah collected by satellite and aircraft over the past 15 years, but it does more than just give a bird’s eye view. With this program, users can layer multiple images of one location from different time periods. Then, the photo on the top layer can be slid away to easily compare growth and change in the landscape over time for that specific location. This program allows users to layer satellite imagery, environmental data, aerial photos, and even map and municipal boundary elements.

“Virtual Utah and our other web-based systems have become valuable tools for land managers such as the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service,” said Ramsey. “Even city planners and farmers can use these tools to manage land and growth.”

Ramsey admitted that monitoring the change in Utah’s landscape was an unintended consequence of Virtual Utah. Its original purpose was to compile and share needed data with land managers. Now, the public has found Virtual Utah, and other online GIS tools, through Google searches and has used them to explore and become more familiar with the environment and geography. Even school children are using the programs to learn about geography and complete school assignments.

What’s even better than having a bird’s eye view of the entire state? Having detailed information about ground cover, geology, elevation, or ownership for each location shown on the screen. The Southwest Regional Gap Analysis Project was a cooperative effort over five years to map and assess biodiversity for a five-state region including Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. Funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, this program combines approximately 560,000 square miles of the southwestern U.S. into one seamless land cover map that gives detailed information about the vegetation and environment for this area of the country.

The web service that Ramsey has developed and hosts both Virtual Utah and the SW Regional Gap Analysis is IRDIAC, or the Intermountain Region Digital Image Archive Center (earth.gis.usu.edu).  This center hosts thousands of images and aids in the development of tools and decision support systems for natural resource management using remote sensing. The archive stores, processes, and disseminates remotely sensed information to state and federal collaborators.

IRDIAC is also full of useful tools for land managers including: The Fiscal Impact Tool kit (earth.gis.usu.edu/fitoolkit), which was developed by Kevin Kilpatrick, a graduate student in the Bioregional Planning Program in the department of environment and society, and programmed by Chris Garrard, is designed to model the fiscal impacts of various kinds of developments including agriculture, commercial and residential. The program analyzes costs and revenues associated with each land use and reports the fiscal impact of how the land is used. The Critical Lands Mapping Tool (earth.gis.usu.edu/cltoolkit), also developed in the Bioregional Planning Program analyzes the environmental impact of land development, land protection, or commercialization in Utah.

“The programs that we offer are so much more than just the technologies of GIS and remote sensing,” explained Ramsey. “It is really a combination of science and art for me. These projects allow me to visually and even aesthetically share the science and geography that I love to study. It’s a new even inspiring way to understand the relationships between nature and society.”

The Internet is an ever-evolving environment and the possibilities for GIS web sites are endless. As Ramsey builds upon the GIS data that he has previously organized into web sites, the data increases in value as it is coupled with current information. “The systems that we built ‘yesterday’ can be relatively archaic when compared to what can be done today,” said Ramsey. The technology advances so quickly that there are always new things that can be done with the same data and this is why Ramsey always finds that there is a new element to add or project to try. Ramsey sees this as a challenge to find new ways to share his knowledge and information with those who need it. Ramsey continues his to do research in GIS and that coveted bird’s eye view becomes a little easier to see all the time.