New UF Software Helps Protect Environmentally Sensitive Land

Ed Hunter (352) 392-1773 x 278

Loukas Arvanitis, (352) 846-0887

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A new computer software system designed by University of Florida scientists may help resolve the ongoing dilemma between protecting environmentally sensitive land and allowing the taxpayers who bought it to camp, fish and hike there.

“As a public land managing agency, we have multiple responsibilities for rare plants and animals, recreation and timber. The beauty of this software is that we’ll be able to put all of this data in one place so various professionals will be able to integrate the information and make better decisions,” said Bob Heeke, a land resources manager with the Suwannee River Water Management District, which funded the system’s development with a $100,000 grant.

“If constraints on property are identified through this software, we can plan around them rather than find out about issues after we’ve developed a management plan,” he said.

The system combines two high-tech methods of gathering, storing and displaying information. In the field, Global Positioning System, or GPS, receivers precisely record the location of items being counted, such as species of trees, vegetation, trails, waterways and other components of the landscape. The information is stored in a database management system and displayed using a Geographic Information System, also known as a GIS, a powerful computer program capable of quickly generating informative maps.

“Agencies face many conflicts in terms of serving the public while trying to adopt measures that will guarantee the integrity of delicate ecosystems,” said system developer Loukas Arvanitis, a professor of forest resources and conservation in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “This system will give land managers an efficient method of gathering, manipulating and reporting information.

“This system will considerably enhance the ability of land managers to make informed decisions regarding the sustainability and conservation of our natural ecosystems,” he said. “Recreational activities can be redirected to areas that are more suitable for those kinds of uses.”

The system could work like this: The water district wants to develop a recreation area with camping facilities along the bank of a river. A land manager checks the computer system and finds that the site is not the best choice — the trees and grasses there are delicate and could not tolerate human activities. But some additional checking reveals that a site a mile down the river would be perfect for the facility. Rather than scrapping the plan altogether, the district’s board simply relocates the proposed facility.

Initially the system will be limited to forest and vegetation information. But Arvanitis said the system is designed for expansion, with the ability to track other attributes including wildlife, exotic plants, geological features, water access points and other details of the various ecosystems.

“Land managers will be able to develop models and establish cause-and-effect relationships between different resources,” Arvanitis said. “Current systems are not able to quantify how levels of resources affect each other because they lack reference points that allow the documentation of changes over time.”

Arvanitis said a variety of methods of data collection can be used with the system, including aerial and satellite photography and good, old-fashioned field work. But he said the accuracy of the GPS receivers will be invaluable.

“The GPS is a powerful tool because of its ability to identify ground coordinates very precisely,” Arvanitis said. “We are able to differentiate the exact locations of different species more accurately and in a more cost-effective manner than ever before.”

Arvanitis said the GPS readings are accurate to within less than a meter. But he said the GPS information, as accurate as it is, needs to be integrated in the GIS software to be truly useful.

“The big advantage of GIS is that it allows you to create multiple layers of information,” Arvanitis said. “For example, soil types may be on one layer, with other layers containing data on vegetation, groundcover, tree species, historical sites and many more.

“Once the data is collected properly and stored, it can be displayed, updated and shared in a variety of formats including over the World Wide Web,” he said.

Arvanitis said the timetable and mechanism for making the actual software and database formats available to other agencies is still under development.