Miles Hemstrom was a young boy when he began looking at the landscape from a bird’s-eye view. It started when he went fishing with his dad on the Grand Mesa in Colorado. He recalls driving up an old dirt road that wound along the side of a mountain through aspen and spruce-fir forest. “We could smell the fir and see across the vast Uncompahgre and Gunnison River valley to the San Juan Mountains 50 miles or more south. Farms, roads, and small towns in the valley were ringed by forested mountains. We continued up the mountain and slept among the flowers next to a lake.”
Hemstrom had little consideration then for political boundaries, but he developed a discerning eye for the large landscape of towering forests and sweeping grassland. He grew up on a farm in western Colorado, and his family explored the Rocky Mountains where he came to appreciate this labyrinth of landmass.
Hemstrom has turned his childhood wonder into a career of forecasting the future of our natural resources. His love of the landscape has merged with computer mapping and led him to develop a way to evaluate landscapes with a vision as large as the western sky. The end result is called the Integrated Landscape Assessment Project (ILAP). ILAP enables managers of state and federal lands to analyze future management scenarios, including issues such as wildlife habitat, fire risk, community economics and forest products. Their goal is often to improve the resilience of a community, a business or an ecosystem.
In your own life, imagine being able to see the impacts of personal decisions over the next 20 years. ILAP makes it possible to do that with a landscape the size of a national forest or a single watershed.
Hemstrom attended Western State Colorado University in the bone chilling climate of Gunnison, Colorado, where his academic adviser hired him to spend summers identifying plant communities. Those experiences triggered his affinity for ecology and landscape patterns and influenced his career path. He began using tools in his perennial challenge to gain a detailed perspective of the land.
After making his way to Oregon State University in 1979, he completed his Ph.D. in plant ecology. He completed a 30-year career with the U.S. Forest Service before becoming the ILAP Technical Lead at the Institute for Natural Resources.
“The connective systems approach is critical. We are still piecemealing different owners in the same landscape and not thinking enough about our combined effect across vast landscapes.”
Punch Cards to Mylar
The mapping of any size landscape used to be a tedious manual process. Fortunately the tools have evolved over the last thirty years from the $700 calculators and IBM punch cards that Hemstrom used as a student. He recalls lugging around boxes of the stiff paper cards, which recorded digital information as patterns of holes. “If you dropped a box of these, you were really up the creek,” Hemstrom says, “as there was only one place on campus to process these cards, so waiting in line was the norm.”
Over the years, Hemstrom used the best mapping tools available at the time: Mylar transparent overlays to plot species distributions; hand-tracing plenometers to translate forest data; manual mapping over large digitizing tables to create overlays. His sobering anecdotes of how far we have come in such a short period of time reflect a bygone era. “These were the mapping tools at the time,” he says, “before the turning point in 1985 when the first desktop Geographic Information Systems (GIS) products emerged.”.
ILAP is like a Ferrari compared to the Model Ts of earlier mapping tools. It enables natural resource managers to forecast the repercussions of a century of fire suppression, forest pathogens spreading disease, population sprawl and potential impacts of climate change — a combination of circumstances that is threatening the health of our forests.
By integrating data and decision-making tools, ILAP provides a view across landscapes and beyond jurisdictional boundaries. It enables managers to observe trends and to determine the economic benefits of management activities.
Building and Applying ILAP
In 2010, Hemstrom and colleague James Barbour of the U.S. Forest Service secured $6 million dollars in funding from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) to build ILAP. The U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station contracted with the Institute for Natural Resources and the Oregon State College of Forestry. Analysts, biologists, economists and ecologists developed the data and models to evaluate changes in vegetation, habitat and economic conditions across watersheds 100,000 acres or more in size.
State and federal land managers are applying ILAP in Oregon, Washington, Arizona and New Mexico. It is particularly well suited for informing natural resource collaboratives, partnerships that are growing in number. For example, since 2010, the ILAP team has been working with the FireScape group in Tucson, Arizona. This group has been focused on the Sky Islands landscapes and is exploring the use of ILAP to inform restoration decisions. How ecosystems will respond to the combined influences of major disturbances such as wildfire and invasive species in an era of climate change is a key issue for this group.
The ILAP-FireScape collaboration has contributed to strategic planning efforts, says Jennifer Ruyle, a forest planner for the Coronado National Forest. “When the FireScape group started coordinating with the ILAP team, it allowed us to make that jump from looking at data from isolated mountain ranges to looking at data across a regional landscape,” she explains. “The very best part was having people representing a whole host of jurisdictions, ownerships and interests in the same room, looking at data that was relevant to the whole group, as well as to individual entities.”
Hemstrom recalls how difficult it was in the 1980’s to make informed decisions and how often they were guided by timber production and politics without consideration for economic or ecological repercussions. “We have focused on timber and found ourselves confronting the spotted owl,” he says. “We then focused on wildlife and found ourselves with a significant decline in rural jobs, and we switched to fuels treatment and have found that this impacts other forest conditions that also impact wildlife.”
Now things are different, Hemstrom adds. “Today we have the best available science seated at the table, which enables stakeholders to have a more constructive dialog of how to manage the resources for future generations. When you focus on one resource, you get yourself in trouble. ILAP steadily moves us away from that diet towards a connective systems approach to managing our forests.”
“The connective systems approach is critical,” says Hemstrom. “We are still piecemealing different owners in the same landscape and not thinking enough about our combined effect across vast landscapes.”
ILAP’s next steps require developing data layers that reflect riparian zones, water resources and invasive weeds so managers can continue to build on ILAP’s comprehensive approach to forecasting and managing landscapes.
Ultimately ILAP serves the public by facilitating better landscape management, Hemstrom says. “We, as a community, have a commitment to save our forests, and ILAP holds value to the average citizen as an emerging tool in stakeholder meetings, not only for forest management but all ecosystems. ILAP gives us, the community, an ability to determine the best path for our forests by visually forecasting different stakeholder’s interests and their prospective impacts on the forest into the future, whether it is 20 years or 50 years out.”
Hemstrom reflects back on those fishing trips with his dad, when he wondered how the land worked. It was so vast and varied that it seemed unknowable. “I still marvel at that sight, and though I know much more about that landscape, I am also sure I don’t really know how it works. I am still fascinated by connections across the land, especially wild and mountainous landscapes.”
U.S. Forest Service
Pacific Northwest Research Station
Rocky Mountain Research Station
Washington Dept. of Natural Resources
Oregon Dept. of Forestry
Arizona Division of Forestry
Arizona Dept. of Game & Fish
Institute for Natural Resources
Oregon State University
University of Washington
University of New Mexico
The Nature Conservancy
Conservation Biology Institute
Ecosystem Management, Inc.
Tapash Collaborative (WA)
Firescape Group (AZ)
Luca De Stefanis joined the Institute for Natural Resources in 2012 after fourteen years in environmental and conservation analysis, planning and design. He is working on two Master’s degrees at Oregon State University: one in the Professional Science Management program studying Environmental Policy with a minor in business; and the other in Natural Resource Management, specializing in Water Conflict Management. His natural resource policy interests include water resources, climate change, land use development, collaborative governance and conflicts over natural resources. Luca enjoys global travel when the opportunity lends itself and when at home in Oregon, he prefers road biking, backpacking in the Cascades, Italian rustic cooking and exploring the beautiful Pacific Northwest.