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Public Access

Industry: Recreation, agriculture

Ranches frequently lie between public roads and public lands such as National Forests. Many ranchers are willing to provide public access to the forest or for hunting on their land, but within limits that respect the ranch and the environment. GIS provides tools that make it easier for ranchers and access groups to find a route that works best for everyone.

First the ranch boundaries, fences, roads, existing access points, destinations, and reasonable parking areas are located and mapped. The existing land use and the intended access use will determine the characteristics of the access. For instance:

  • Roads for access across the ranch can be routed away from creeks and wetlands.
  • Areas along a river can support year-round fishing, so a narrow band along it might be designated for year-round access. Wetlands areas can be identified and removed from the access area.
  • Seasonal access for hunters can be provided in uplands areas after cattle are moved to lower pastures.

Areas along roads and near houses need more protection, so immediate envelopes around the houses can be identified and closed; a broader area might be identified for bow hunting only.

Using GIS instead of paper maps makes the maps easy to change and update as feedback is received. It also makes the maps easy to update over time, accommodating lessons learned, a change in land use, or weather changes such as closing areas to vehicles when fire danger is high.

Protecting rivers

Industry: Agriculture, Environment

Montana has limited water resources. In many areas, the surface water has been claimed by more users than it can support in an average year, leading to conflicts between users and damage to the streams and rivers when irrigators “dewater” them by using all the water, threatening the fish and riparian environment. One way to solve the problem is to find water elsewhere in the river basin that is unused or underused. GIS makes it easier for landowners or environmental groups to identify water rights that could be used to add water to the stream. GIS data includes point of diversion, place of use, “claim” date, water quantity, and rights holder, making it easy to identify which rights would be most effective in rewatering the stream. Then the landowner or group can talk to the water rights holder about selling it, or about changing irrigation practices to allow some of the water right to be transferred to the stream.

In addition to water quantity, water quality can be a concern. Riparian areas along streams are important for protecting the water quality but are popular with cattle (and people) and are often degraded beyond their ability to filter the water. GIS makes it easy to spot riparian areas based on hydrology and plant types; mappers then carry GPS units while walking the area and the data is added to the map. Grazing can then be reduced on these areas to protect the water quality over the river and therefore the fish, while non-riparian areas can safely be grazed more heavily.

Flood Plain Mapping

Industry: Emergency Services, Land Use

Flood plain mapping is important for land use planning because it delineates where building shouldn’t occur; it also helps emergency services designate evacuation areas in case of a major flood. It requires mapping the location of bridges, culverts, and other structures in rivers, including data about their size, condition, and effect on the water, in order to predict the water’s behavior as it rises. The mapping used to be done manually, transcribing locations onto maps and writing up field notes for each structure, which took a lot of time to collect and transcribe the data. Mobile GIS allows someone to collect and enter data in the field, then download it at the office directly into the map. It now takes half an hour to produce 50 maps, instead of 10-20 hours manually. Field time is cut in half, costs (paid through taxes) are reduced, transcription errors are eliminated, and accuracy is improved.

Tax Valuation

Industry: Land

Tax reassessments are performed every two years to ensure that property taxes are calculated correctly, with the right owner and land use. To update tax valuations, the Montana Department of Revenue uses GIS to develop maps showing parcel data, field boundaries, soil types, and listed land use overlaid on aerial photos. These maps are sent to landowners so they could look at them and confirm that the information was correct or make corrections. Sometimes errors occur because property lines are poorly mapped; other problems occur because the property deeds don’t reflect the memories of the landowners.

In some cases, the landowners learn something about their land when they make a correction and research is done to verify it. One older man discovered that he owned the land under his brother’s house; he disliked his brother and threatened to bill him for rent, but left it for his wife to resolve after his death. In another case, a farmer discovered that for decades he had been plowing land that belonged to the farmer across the road; the acreage was small and the neighbors chose to deed the land to the farmer who had been plowing it rather than incorporate it into their operation.

Rural land sales app

Industry: Real estate

Montana is a nondisclosure state and there is no central repository for data on land sales. Urban realtors can use MLS to gather information, but there is no easy source of similar information for rural areas. A rural appraiser has developed an app that shows all properties of 200 acres or larger that are listed or sold. Subscribers are primarily rural real estate professionals such as rural realtors and appraisers, but also include buyers, sellers, land owners, investment firms, banks, non-profit organizations, governmental agencies, and land consultants. The app has 7 choices of base layers (topos, aerials, terrain), 12 layers of publicly available data (parcels, public lands, reservations, hunting access, wilderness areas, etc) and 3 layers of parcel data generated by the appraiser, based on the state cadastral data. Subscribers use it to research properties: what is listed in an area? How big is it? How many parcels is it? Are there any leased lands included? What are the boundaries and land uses? Who are the neighbors? Does it border public land? Are there any conservation easements in the area? Which school district is it in? Having all the information readily available speeds research immensely.

Wildlife Movement Corridors

Industry: Wildlife Management, Environment

The Northern Rockies has an abundance of wildlife and multiple protected areas for them, but the protected areas are separated by developed lands and communities, making it hard for wildlife to move between them as the seasons change or to find unrelated mates. To improve the ability of wildlife to move among the three largest protected areas in the Northern Rockies -- the Salmon-Selway, Northern Continental Divide, and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystems, researchers delineated landscape routes offering the best chance of success using GIS software, the best available spatial data on habitats, and the habitat preferences of the selected umbrella species. They modeled potential regional-scale wildlife corridors between the protected areas, which they combined with road density information to create kilometer-scale cost surfaces of movement. For each of the three species -- grizzly bear, elk, and cougar -- they performed a least-cost-path analysis to locate broad potential corridor routes. From this first approximation they identified probable movement routes and as well as critical barriers, bottlenecks, and filters where corridor routes intersected with high-risk habitat. This analysis is being used to identify priority areas for wildlife management to improve the connectivity between the core protected ecosystems in the Northern Rockies.

Wildlife Conservation

Industry: Wildlife Management

Many countries in Asia and Africa are trying to protect their wildlife, but poachers can be hard to find in the densely-vegetated areas of many wildlife refuges. To help rangers find poachers, University of Montana cartographers and students used GIS to create detailed electronic maps of the wildlife areas that allow rangers to find poachers more effectively. If a report indicates that poachers have been seen at a particular waterfall, the location can be found on the map and the coordinates given to the rangers in the field. In dense jungle areas without GPS signals, rangers access the maps on their phones and use old-fashioned orienteering to find the waterfall and hopefully the poachers. If rangers find a snare while patrolling, they can locate it on the map on their phone and transfer it to the map at headquarters. Once the locations are mapped, rangers can model the data, look for patterns, and start predicting where the poachers are likely to be. Trail cameras can be placed at those locations and if poachers are seen, rangers can start patrolling more heavily. Improved information improves the rangers’ ability to slow poaching and protect the wildlife.

Road Maintenance

Industry: Roads

Flathead County has long maintained all public roads in the county but is now moving toward having rural subdivisions maintain their internal roads. The County wants to turn over roads in decent condition to newly-formed improvement districts for each subdivision. A map is being created based on the parcel layer, which shows subdivision names and boundaries, and roads. The roads are divided into block-sized segments and labeled. Field engineers put the road segments into an app on their phones and assess the roads in the field, looking at a list of characteristics from the presence of cracks to the location of potholes. They enter the data on their phones and it is then analyzed to develop a map of current road conditions. This lets the County see which roads need to be improved before they are handed over to the improvement districts and provides a baseline for the districts to plan for maintenance.

Sewer Expansion

Industry: Municipal Utilities

The City of Missoula is planning for an expansion of their sewer treatment system, which requires them to set an estimate of how much capacity they will need in the future. The first task is to figure out how many people the system currently serves and how many it might serve in the future. Parcel and address data provide the base information about numbers of households, and census data provides the average number of people per household in each census tract. Billing addresses from the City are added to figure out how many people are currently being served. Many properties within the service area still use septic systems, representing one source of additional sewer users; these properties can be identified by comparing billing addresses to the parcels. Population growth is calculated by census zone for the next 20-25 years and applied to the current population numbers to develop a total projected use that will define the capacity of the expansion.

Power Line Maintenance

Industry: Utilities

Electric utility systems have many assets to keep track of: wires both underground and above, poles, meters, transformers, and substations, among others. Each piece of equipment has data associated with it that provides information to maintenance crews, but the data is only useful if the crews have ready access to it when they need it. Therefore, utilities have developed GIS systems that contain all these assets and make them readily available to the crews. Information includes equipment ID and location, age of equipment, addresses, streets and roads, mile markers, vegetation, electrical load, pole or meter condition (entered in the field with an online app), service notes and alerts such as how to get access to gated communities or when to be careful of a dog. With this information, crews can look up a specific pole and see design specs so they know what equipment they need before they leave the shop; find all the wire that was installed 30 years ago for a maintenance plan; or see patterns of failures so they can solve the larger problem.

Risk Mitigation in Power Lines

Industry: Utilities

Wildfire threatens not only buildings when it runs across the landscape, but also above-ground utilities such as power poles. Utilities are looking at the risks posed by wildfires and using GIS to develop risk mitigation plans. An engineer takes the utility’s existing GIS data, including the location of the lines and poles, the pole material, and any equipment (switches, transformers, etc) on the poles, and adds current moisture conditions, precipitation patterns, and vegetation to create a map showing which power lines are most at risk in a wildfire. From the map, the utility can quantify risk factors for each line and pole and develop a plan to mitigate it where possible. In low-risk areas such as a field, a coat of fire-resistant paint may be sufficient; in high-risk areas, they might look at replacing wood poles with steel. They can also look at the system as a whole and find ways to minimize the number of customers who will be without power following a fire, such as installing a switch that will allow power to be rerouted and brought into the area from a different direction. Mitigating the fire risk means fewer customers will be without power in a fire, and reduces hazard, inconvenience, and expense for customers as well as the utilities.

Bike Routes

Industry: Recreation

There is a growing network of bike trails and routes across the country and growing numbers of bike riders exploring them. The challenge is always the map: paper maps are hard to carry and use on a bike, and routes can change between map updates, leaving a bike rider stranded. To make things easier, the Adventure Cycling Association digitized maps of nearly 47,000 miles of bike routes and turned them into a phone app that allows the rider to see where they are on the route. All routes, services, towns, and features are geo-located for easier navigation, encouraging people to get our and explore the routes.

Hunt Planner

Industry: Outdoor Recreation

Hunters spread out across Montana every fall to bond with friends and family, find a trophy, and fill the freezer for the winter. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks provides maps and regulations for the state, but regulations booklets can be confusing and paper maps can’t be updated as conditions change. To better serve hunters and landowners, FWP used GIS to create an interactive map called Hunt Planner which shows species, hunting districts, and distribution combined with reference information like roads, towns, and land ownership. Clicking on a hunting district brings up the applicable regulations; other filters allow selection by species, license, and access type. As a dynamic web map, Hunt Planner is easy to update as conditions change, such as when high fire danger leads a rancher to restrict access to a block management area until the snow falls or conditions improve.

Hunt Planner makes it easier for hunters to get the information they need to have a safe and productive hunt, improves relationships with landowners by quickly communicating changing conditions, and facilitates communication between FWP staff and their constituents.

Search and Rescue

Industry: Outdoor Recreation

1.) When a backcountry skier went missing in Flathead County, there was a lot of steep ground to be covered thoroughly and a lot of different people doing the searching. Search and Rescue coordinators needed a quick and effective way to assign areas and track the search. The area to be searched was mapped in GIS, broken up into smaller search areas based on terrain and accessibility, and marked on topo maps. Each search team was assigned an area and the boundaries were programmed into the leader’s GPS unit. As they searched, the GPS unit tracked where they went and the data was later added to the map to improve planning for the next day’s search. Some GPS units can track the actual path taken by a searcher, improving accuracy in difficult terrain. Skilled GIS professionals can then take the data and make maps that are easily understood by everyone involved in the search, increasing coordination and success rates.

2.) Sheridan County (WY) Search and Rescue was assisting Big Horn County with a search of the Tongue River Reservoir for someone who had gone missing. A GIS professional in Sheridan was able to access data from the Montana State Library and other state sources, including bathymetric data showing the bottom of the reservoir, and used it to create a grid for searchers. The grid coordinates were loaded onto divers’ GPS units so they knew where each grid square was and could check them off as they were searched. The bathymetric data told divers how deep they needed to be in each grid square. This allowed the divers to be confident that they had searched the bottom of the reservoir thoroughly, even though they didn’t find the missing person.

Law Enforcement

Industry: Emergency Services

Montana is a big state and law enforcement officers need to be able to respond quickly across a large area. They rely on maps to get where they are needed even when there is little in the way of standard addressing available. GIS has improved the maps available to them in several ways.

The Department of Justice supports a GIS system for Montana Highway Patrol troopers. The maps are on troopers’ Toughbooks (laptops) and dispatch computers. The software allows troopers to see addresses and location aids such as highway mile markers, which helps them respond faster. It also allows both dispatchers and troopers see all trooper locations, which improves officer safety.

All law enforcement agencies have laptops in their vehicles, but not everywhere in the state has reliable cell service. Lake County has created books of paper maps for LCSO deputies to carry when they are in rural areas that have dead zones for cell service, allowing them to respond to calls in remote locations faster. GIS allows the maps to be updated easily as the county grows and changes.

Maps for Fire Departments

Industry: Emergency Services

Central Valley Volunteer Fire Department serves a fast-growing area in Gallatin County and couldn’t print a map that wasn’t out of date within weeks. As development occurred, new subdivisions developed, new addresses were added, and the fire district went from 14 fire ponds to 70. It was hard to train firefighters to know where all the ponds were and which was closest to a given fire. The solution came in the form of GIS, which allowed them to add ponds and subdivisions to their maps quickly. Mobile Data Terminals in Command Vehicles and fire trucks gave the firefighter access to the most current information, which improved both response time and officer safety. GIS also allows firefighters to have easy access to parcel records that tell who the owner is, making it easier to contact them if they aren’t on the scene.

Wildfire Maps

Industry: Emergency Services

Wildfires usually occur in areas with limited detailed mapping; often the only readily available map is a topo map. When a wildfire starts, the incident commander and fire crews are working blind until they can get detailed maps of the area. In the past, it took an average of two days to create a map of an area when a new fire started. Now fire managers can quickly access GIS data bases that give them the topography, access roads, and management units, and they can have a working map ready in half an hour instead of two days, improving the safety and effectiveness of the fire crews. Cultural artifacts can also be located so that firefighters can avoid disturbing them.

As the fire burns, the map is updated every day. GPS units are used to map the perimeter; someone in a helicopter with a GPS unit can map the areas within the perimeter that haven’t burned. A plane carrying an infrared detector flies over the fire at night and detects the hot spots, which are added to the map. Buildings are mapped and evacuations planned. Maps include perimeter, hot spots outside perimeter, division lines (for crew assignments), fireline type (handline, dozer, explosives), terrain, slope, fuel type, roads, structures, and evacuation areas, making it easier for incident commanders to manage large, complex fires.

Public Safety

Industry: Emergency Services

Over the years, an emergency responder develops a wide-ranging knowledge of their response area, how it works, and where the challenges are. And then they retire, taking most of that knowledge with them. GIS provides one way to collect and retain institutional or area knowledge by mapping it.

Roads, structures, sgovernment divisions such as fire districts, radio dead spots, and vegetation layers give emergency service providers information about what they are dealing with. Structure layers tell them how many people are likely to affected by a landslide or fire. A floodplain layer indicates where rivers are likely to flood and helps responders know what areas they may need to evacuate. Prevailing weather and wind direction maps provide information for fire crews. Critical infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, and rest homes can be identified in advance because they may need help evacuating or need to be evacuated early. Maps of hazardous materials locations let responders know where hazards are before they get to them. Bridge data helps with routing large trucks and fire engines safely. Firefighters need to know where fire ponds and hydrants are, while potable water is useful for many responders. Knowing the location of aerial hazards such as power lines helps air ambulances land safely. All this knowledge allows incident commanders to plan ahead and think through where to put command posts, helipads, and support services.

Violent and Sexual Offender Maps

Industry: Law Enforcement

The Department of Justice tracks violent and sexual offenders, including their addresses, but the information is only useful if it can be readily accessed. By putting the information on a GIS system, the public can see what offenders live near them or employers can include the information in background checks. Internally, the DOJ uses the information to enforce laws that restrict offenders, such as HB 219, which restricts their proximity to children. The map includes schools, child care providers, and parks, which makes it easy to tell if an offender is in a restricted area.

Diabetes Prevention

Industry: Health

When someone learns that they are at risk for diabetes, they often start looking for resources that will help them prevent it, but these can be hard to find. To make it easier, the Montana Department of Health and Human Services has used GIS to develop a series of user-friendly maps that help people find healthy food, places to exercise such as trails and parks, and diabetes prevention programs. These online maps answer many initial questions, improving the consistency of the information and saving DPHHS staff time that they can use to answer more complex questions. The ready availability of information makes it simpler for people to find the information they need when they need it.

Deaths in Glacier National Park

Industry: Outdoor Recreation

Over 3 million people visited Glacier National Park in 2017 and most of them left safely. However, every year a handful of people die in the park. In order to figure out how that number could be reduced, a student started developing a map of the park showing all deaths over the years and what caused each one. She discovered that many people who die in the Park are experienced local climbers rather than tourists. The school project included mapping 20 deaths. Once data about all the deaths are added, it will make it easier for the park service to increase awareness of hazards and focus safety education on areas where lives can most likely be saved.

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