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Summary of the Federal Highway Administration's Quarterly Webcast on Applications of Geospatial Technologies to Transportation

Webcast 11: Integrated Environmental Planning (IEP): Tools for Enhancing Environmental, Transportation, and Tribal Capacity
August 29, 2011

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These notes provide a summary of the PowerPoint presentation discussed during the webcast and detail the question and answer session that followed the presentation.

The presentation is available upon request from the webcast speaker, Sharon L. Osowski, Ph.D. (Osowski.Sharon@epa.gov).

A link to the webcast recording is available at:
http://fhwa.adobeconnect.com/p35415ho6xl/


Presenter

Sharon L. Osowski, Ph.D.
Ecologist
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 6
Osowski.Sharon@epa.gov

Participants

Approximately 30 participants attended the webcast.

Introduction to Presentation

Mark Sarmiento of the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA) thanked participants for joining the webcast. This webcast was the eleventh in a quarterly series of FHWA-sponsored webcasts. The series deals with the application of geospatial information systems (GIS) and other geospatial technologies to transportation. This webcast focused on the use of IEP tools, including the Regional Eco-Logical Assessment Protocol (REAP), the GIS Screening and Analysis Tool (GISST), and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Assist tool (NEPAssist), all of which help evaluate the ecological impacts of proposed transportation projects.

Presentation

REAP
REAP is a GIS tool that uses three key characteristics – diversity, rarity, and sustainability – to identify areas that present the greatest opportunities for mitigation. It evolved from the Texas Ecological Assessment Protocol (TEAP) with a few notable changes to datasets and formats specific to Texas, including the removal of ecologically significant stream segments, the use of quads for one data layer (the TEAP used point locations), 0.25 km2 grid cells versus 1 km2 grid cells, and the designation of ecoregions, which are large areas with predictable patterns of ecosystems.

More details about the REAP's data layers are provided below.

Diversity
The diversity layer indicates areas that have the most diverse land cover. It is defined based on the following factors:

  • Appropriateness of Land Cover: describes the predicted natural vegetation under no human influence and compares it to current vegetation.
  • Contiguous Size of Undeveloped Land: uses the theory that the larger the contiguous area of undeveloped land, the higher the diversity.
  • Shannon Land Cover Diversity Index: based on Shannon Index (richness and evenness); shows how many specific land cover types exist in contiguous, undeveloped polygons.

Rarity
The rarity layer indicates areas that contain the greatest number of rare species and vegetation types and is defined based on the following factors:

  • Vegetation Rarity: measures land cover types considered rare within each ecoregion.
  • Natural Heritage Rank: uses Global Heritage Rank, where rankings denote critically imperiled and demonstrably secure species.
  • Taxonomic Richness shows number of rare taxa (birds, mammals, reptiles, etc.)
  • Rare Species Richness: shows number of rare (threatened and endangered) species, including rare species at the state level.

Certain rarity data are not available in finer detail than a quadrangle. Therefore, the rarity results appear as larger grid cells on the map.

Sustainability
The sustainability layer identifies areas that are most able to sustain ecosystems without human management or intervention. This layer is defined based on the following factors:

  • Contiguous Land Cover Type: based on the principle that similar ecosystem types (e.g., forest, desert, etc.) have greater sustainability.
  • Regularity of Ecosystem Boundary: reflects the perimeter-to-area ratios of particular land cover types. Circular areas have smaller ratios and are more capable of sustaining “interior” species while linear areas have more “edge” species. The REAP sustainability layer emphasizes interior over edge species.
  • Appropriateness of Land Cover: describes predicted natural vegetation under no human influence and compares it to current vegetation.
  • Waterway Obstruction: deals with facilities, such as dams, which interrupt the continuity of waterways.
  • Road Density: based on the principle that roads fragment the landscape.
  • Airport Noise: based on the idea that noise around airports stresses surrounding habitats, thereby lowering habitat quality.
  • National Priority List (NPL) Sites: shows sites where hazardous substances have been released and disturbed the environment.
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Sites: shows sites where hazardous substances have been released and disturbed the environment.
  • Urban/Agricultural Areas: shows activities in urban and agricultural areas that generate disturbances to the surrounding areas, though not to the same extent as NPL or RCRA sites.
  • Water Quality: shows where there is lack of good water quality, which stresses biota.
  • Air Quality: shows where outfall of chemicals or particulates may impact ecological communities and become incorporated into the food chain.

The resulting sustainability map depicts the most sustainable sites in red and the least sustainable sites in white. The least sustainable sites are generally clustered around major urban centers and attributes that are likely to cause fragmentation.

The three REAP characteristics identify important ecological resources in an ecoregion. Each characteristic can be displayed independently on a color-coded map of 0.25 km2 grid cells, where cells with the highest diversity, rarity, or sustainability are colored red and cells with the lowest diversity, rarity, or sustainability are colored white. The REAP layers can also be combined into a single composite map. The composite map makes clear which sites are influenced more by rarity, diversity, or sustainability. Sites strongly influenced by rarity appear square in shape, while sites influenced more by diversity and sustainability appear linear or do not have a distinct shape.

GISST
GISST is a tool that scores electronic environmental data and allows users to compare impacts and project alternatives, where higher scores correspond to areas of greater environmental concern. EPA's Region 6 developed GISST as standalone tool using ESRI ArcIMS and ArcGIS Server. The tool has been integrated into NEPAssist (see below) through an Intergovernmental Agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation.

Although GISST currently only includes data for the area under the jurisdiction of EPA's Region 6, its scoring system can be tailored to other regions. In the future, the GISST will be enhanced to display results in a grid cells on a map in addition to the current table format. GISST questions will also be reassessed and Tribal data will be added.

NEPAssist
EPA developed NEPAssist as a web-based tool to illustrate a project's environmental “footprint.” NEPAssist includes data for facilities, National Priorities List sites, superfund sites, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, impacted stream segment information, and other environmental factors. Once a project is digitized in NEPAssist, the tool can indicate whether the project lies within specified distances of sensitive areas.

NEPAssist indicates whether a project alternative will result in particular environmental effects (while the GISST tool rates each effect so that reviewers can evaluate their prominence in each alternative). In an example from Louisiana, NEPAssist produced similar yes/no responses for each of five alternatives whereas the GISST rated various environmental and socioeconomic factors on a scale of one to five, allowing a reviewer to compare the extent of the impacts of each alternative rather than simply the presence of an impact. NEPAssist can be used in tandem with the GISST. For example, NEPAssist can help narrow down a large list of alternatives; GISST can be used to better understand the differences between remaining alternatives. EPA has also incorporated the results from REAP into GISST so that REAP results for the diversity, rarity, and sustainability factors can be translated into a GISST rating. GISST ratings can be presented as a cumulative score; however, a science advisory board determined that it was not appropriate to add or average them.

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Question and Answer Session

EPA Region 4 has expanded its ecological framework to the entire country. The framework focuses less on species but more on natural habitat connectivity. Has there been any effort to integrate this approach with REAP and GISST?
I was not aware that Region 4 had expanded its approach to the rest of the country. Region 4's approach, called the Southeastern Ecological Framework (SEF), uses a hub and spoke approach, which identifies how hubs of natural vegetation connect to other hubs. Since the SEF does not take ecoregions into account in its formulation, small areas of high ecological importance are lost in more developed regions. This approach presents difficulties for finding preservation and mitigation opportunities in certain regions, such as highly urbanized areas.

Are there plans to expand the GISST to an ArcGIS Server?
GISST is available as an mxd file that activates a GISST toolbar in a user's ArcMap session. GISST-specific datasets still need to be loaded on a user's machine. The mxd file is used outside of the NEPAssist environment and is designed for more experienced GIS users. However, it is unclear how the tool would translate to someone else in another area, so it will not be offered by EPA on ArcGIS Server.

Are the data the same across all regions?
Yes, for the most part. The only different data set includes information for threatened and endangered species. All of the other data sets exist at the national level.

What are next steps for the GISST?
EPA Region 6 has plans to integrate a grid view so that the tool can produce a map of 1 km grid cells of GISST factors.

Is the long-term plan to do something on a more national scale? Are other regions putting together similar tools?
There is a strong interest in creating a national tool, but each EPA region already has a large workload. Having a national plan from the EPA headquarters' offices to offer additional GIS support (GIS technician or analyst) to program and work with each region to roll out a national tool would increase the likelihood of near-term implementation.

Are the REAP and the GISST focused on high-level screening of major areas to avoid? Do they replace a more detailed NEPA analysis?
They are focused on high-level project planning and do not replace NEPA or coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or others.

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