Supporting conservation and decision-making in the Northwoods: Mapping forest values, services, and threats (2017)

Client Organization: 
The Nature Conservancy in Michigan
Project Location : 
Lansing, MI
Summary of Project Idea: 

The Nature Conservancy, as part of the Northern Forest Working Group of the Upper Midwest & Great Lakes Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC), is seeking to “Influence forest conservation and management across boundaries to consider changing social, economic, and ecological conditions to promote sustainable, resilient northern forests into the future.” In pursuit of this mission, we need to identify important values, threats, and forest conditions across the Laurentian Mixed Hardwood Forest Province (or “Northwoods”, including upper Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan), identify and map areas that are essential to protect, conserve, or manage sustainably, in view of those values, threats, and current forest conditions. A longer-term goal is also to provide online access to spatial information and data that would guide greater consistency and regional thinking in the decisions of forest managers, conservation practitioners, and other stakeholders in the region. With the recent formation of the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes LCC as a high-level, cross-institution entity, this work is at a critical point where early steps can have a long-term impact. An SNRE Masters Project team could substantially advance this work by researching and compiling existing data and previous studies about forest threats and stakeholder values in this region; gathering new data and information as needed – including through contacting stakeholders; identifying shared goals across stakeholder groups and jurisdictional boundaries for values, condition, and threat abatement; creatively assessing how geospatial data can be used to represent important values, threats, and forest conditions; and creating story maps and other key inputs for online decision-support tools, as well as shaping the uses and abilities of such future tools.

Goals & Objectives

The goal of this project is to support and advance the above-stated mission of the LCC Northern Forest Working Group by providing forest managers and stakeholders with improved access to data and information on important values, current forest conditions, and threats to forests in the Northwoods. Specifically, the project team will pursue these objectives:

  1. Identify and assemble geospatial data and information on important values, forest conditions, and threats to forests in the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province;
  2. Identify goals for values, forest condition, and threats as stated in relevant plans at local, state, regional, or Federal levels;
  3. Develop online story map(s) enabling visualization of values, forest condition, and threats, in a manner that best meets stakeholder needs;
  4. Report on project findings, demonstrate use of the story map(s), and provide any assembled data to The Nature Conservancy and the LCC.

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance

The forests of the Northwoods are currently and will continue to be affected directly and indirectly by changing ecological and socioeconomic conditions, from climate-related impacts to market-driven responses, as well as wildfire, invasive species, losses of biodiversity, and forest fragmentation due to exurban sprawl and potential northward expansion of agriculture. Northwoods forests are managed by a variety of public and private actors across a range of institutional settings and scales. Forest management and land use decisions will affect the health and resilience of forests in the long term and across the region, in turn affecting the wide range of ecosystem services that forest-dominated landscapes provide – from wildlife habitat and clean water, to wood products and recreational opportunities. Shared goals and cross-boundary planning are vital to addressing these as many of the issues that face the region traverse political boundaries and ownerships, including state and Federal land, private forest land, tribal land, and private and public conservation lands. Collaborations can also effectively facilitate the sharing of best practices and lessons learned, as well as the adoption of new tools or methods.

There is some ongoing collaboration, especially in some regions such as northeast Minnesota, and recognition that additional collaboration would increase the likelihood that the Northwoods will provide multiple ecological and socioeconomic benefits into the future. Prior work has identified an interest in better access to online data and information, and in particular, in applications such as story maps.

Specific Activities & Duration:

  1. Identify existing information (e.g., outcomes from prior surveys and workshops, Forest Inventory and Analysis data) that can help prioritize the forest-related values and threats in the region that are high importance to a diversity of stakeholders and organizations. Information from this step will be combined with results from interviews with decision makers to create a prioritized list of values and threats that would be considered of priority for mapping efforts. (March – October, 2016)
  2. Review management and conservation plans from Federal, State, Provincial, non-profit, and private lands to identify goals for high priority values (e.g., acres of high quality forest; quantity and quality of drinking water provided by forested watersheds; numbers of recreational users). (April – September, 2016)
    1. Identify values for which goals do not exist and implement a process (using technical team, Working Group, or these groups and stakeholders) for setting goals. (September, 2016 – January, 2017)
  3. Identify, compile, and describe the available spatial and monitoring data that can be used to map the high priority values and threats. The products from this step would include a modified list of values and threats based on a feasibility assessment. Additionally, gaps in existing data for mapping high priority values and threats will be identified. This step will help address questions: Does the data exist and is it already mapped? Is it available for the entire region and at the scale and resolution needed? What is the potential to update each of the mapped layers over time? (September, 2016 – February, 2017)
  4. Develop a story map (or maps) for forest values and threats of interest that convey the potential use and applicability of a decision-support tool (December, 2016 – March 2017).
  5. Report on the status of priority values, conditions, and threats with respect to identified goals, by presenting (via webinar or in person) to the LCC Northern Forest Working Group and providing a final project report (March or April, 2017).

Integrative Approach

The proposed work is innovative in that it will integrate a broad suite of socioeconomic and ecological values into one interface, enabling forest managers to access data and information in ways that most effectively support their own decisions in a regional, cross-boundary context. This integrative approach will require skills and interests in social, cultural, and economic values of northern forests, ecological conditions and threats, geospatial data and tool development, and outreach and communications.

SEAS Program Areas: 
Conservation Ecology (Aquatic Sciences, Terrestrial Ecosystems, and Conservation Biology)
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Informatics
Role for each program area: 
  • Project leader: someone who will serve as the point person for most communications with the project client
  • Social science data specialist: compiles social, cultural, and economic data and information from existing sources, and creates new data as needed in support of identified values;
  • Ecological data specialist: compiles ecological data and information from existing sources, and creates new data as needed in support of identified values and ecosystem services;
  • Forest management specialist: reviews and assembles goals and practices from forest management plans in the region; 
  • Geographic information specialist: assembles necessary geospatial data to represent socioeconomic and ecological values, and creates story maps to provide data to managers and stakeholders;
  • Communications specialist: assesses the existing communications among stakeholders, agencies, and other entities and researches the role of story maps and spatial information in communicating goals, threats, and values of forest land.
Team size: Based on the roles defined below, we anticipate that a team of 3-5 people would be ideal.
Professional Career Development Benefits: 

This project involves students contacting stakeholders across a range of resource management and conservation related agencies, which will improve students’ knowledge and understanding of these organizations as well as develop professional contacts.  Students will learn skills in using data for decision support across jurisdictions and institutions, which is a skill set that is growing in demand among resource agencies and NGOs.  Students will present results to professionals at The Nature Conservancy and the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes Landscape Conservation Cooperative, a high-level group of resource and conservation professionals. The Northern Forest Working Group of the LCC currently comprises representatives of the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Departments of Natural Resources in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ontario, Wayne State University, Illinois Natural History Survey, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, Trust for Public Lands, University of Wisconsin Extension, US Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the University of Vermont.

Funding Sources: 

The Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LLC) will provide support for team travel to the working group meeting in Sault St. Marie, and possible additional support to be determined.  

Identify expected products/deliverables: 


  • To the extent that the project Team assembles and/or creates geospatial data representing important socioeconomic values, forest conditions, and threats to forest values in the Northwoods, these data will be provided to The Nature Conservancy and the LCC at the conclusion of the project. If compiled data are publicly available elsewhere, the project team will fully describe the locations of such data.
  • Online story map: an interactive application that allows users to visualize current status of important values, forest conditions, and threats throughout the Northwoods and provides functionality that meets needs identified through the project.
  • Presentation to the LCC Northern Forest Working Group: webinar, or potentially in-person presentation, summarizing findings related to forest values, conditions, and threats, and demonstrating use of the story map.
  • Final report: a copy of the final project report.

The final products will be used and promoted by the LCC, and specifically the Northern Forest Working Group, to managers and other decision-makers throughout the Northwoods in support of improved cross-boundary decision making related in support of the above-stated mission. The products will also serve as a critical foundation for the development of more sophisticated decision-support tools.

Contact full name: 
Douglas Pearsall
Job title: 
Senior Conservation Scientist
State or Country: 
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Bill Currie
Contact Phone: 
Contact e-mail: 
Contact information: 
SNRE alum
Staff member of a potential client organization
Our Organization has been an SNRE master's project client in a previous year
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Kate Keeley, MS Behavior, Education and Communication/Environmental Policy and Planning 
  • Elliot Kurtz, MS Environmental Informatics 
  • Luxian Li, MS Conservation Ecology 
  • Ed Waisanen, MS Environmental Informatics/Environmental Policy and Planning 
  • Yu Xin, MS Conservation Ecology/Environmental Informatics 
  • Fan Zhang, MS Environmental Informatics 
Project Status: 
Past Project