Plant Community Classification and Mapping at the Idaho National Laboratory Site


Accurate classification and mapping of vegetation communities have become increasingly important tools for conservation management. By understanding the distribution and condition of plant communities on a landscape, a number of conservation goals can more easily be met including:

  • Determining which community types are intrinsically rare or have been severely degraded
  • Identifying the best remaining occurrences of natural communities across their geographic ranges
  • Development of habitat suitability models for predicting species occurrences, and
  • Classifying areas for their importance in conservation management planning.

Previous vegetation maps of the INL Site are inadequate to serve these conservation management planning goals because they are outdated. The most recent effort was almost twenty years ago and does not capture important changes that have occurred since that time including fires, sagebrush die-off and invasion by non-native plants. Also, methodologies for vegetation classification and mapping have been refined and standardized since those earlier maps and will allow for continuity between classification on the INL Site and on neighboring lands managed by other agencies. Among others,  those standards include the U.S. National Vegetation Classification System (USNVC) and the Federal Geographic Data Committee spatial data transfer and metadata standards.

Understanding the distribution and condition of plant communities on the INL Site will support the Conservation Management Plan through habitat mapping, development of Habitat Suitability Indices and will help to focus surveys for sensitive species. Additional benefits to land management at the INL Site include guiding revegetation and weed management efforts, increasing the efficiency of assessing environmental impacts and siting plots for research, and inventory and monitoring activities. It will also serve as an important background database for research on the National Environmental Research Park.


The overall goal of vegetation community classification and mapping is to assess the distribution of plant communities on the INL Site. Specific objectives are to:

  • Determine the community types present on the INL Site
  • Determine the distribution of those community types on the landscape, and
  • Conduct an accuracy assessment of the resulting map.

The approach planned includes two parallel processes (plant community classification and delineating mapping units) that are brought together in the final step to produce the map.
The plant community classification process includes collection of new field data from many locations representing distinct community types. The final classifications will be based on these field data analyzed using ordination and cluster analysis. These results will then be cross-walked to the USNVC vegetation associations.

The delineation and mapping process begins by collecting new color-infrared aerial imagery in a digital format. That imagery is then processed using image analysis software and other techniques to define areas of similarity in the imagery.

The next step will be to bring these two processes together by linking the community classifications to the mapping units derived from the aerial imagery. It is important to note that in some cases there may be more than one association linked to a single mapping unit and vice-versa. This allows for a consideration of vegetation associations that occur as a mosaic at a finer scale than can be delineated using this process.

Finally, we will conduct an accuracy assessment by selecting sites from the new map and collecting field data at those sites. The final products will include a report describing the plant community classes existing on the INL Site and a GIS database of plant communities on the INL Site at multiple geographic scales suitable for use with the Conservation Management Plan.

Accomplishments Through 2007

The only activity scheduled in 2007 was the collection of new aerial imagery. Due to the extremely dry conditions across the INL Site this spring, the originally scheduled image acquisition was cancelled and postponed until spring of 2008. Following a few days of heavy consistent rainfall in June, we visited representative vegetation communities across the INL Site and determined that the influx of moisture resulted in a response in the vegetation that would likely assist with image classifications. On June 15, color-infrared digital imagery was collected at 1 m ground sample distance across the entire INL Site.

We began Quality Assurance/Quality Control (QA/QC) assessments of the imagery to determine that it met our data quality requirements. Following the initial spatial accuracy assessment, the imagery appears to have about 1 m or less horizontal accuracy.


Because the project is in the initial data collection phase, results are not yet ready to be reported.

Plans for Continuation

In 2008, we plan to begin the two major efforts of classification and delineation. Using pre-existing data a preliminary vegetation community classification, necessary for the field data collection, is expected to be completed in May 2008. Field data collection is expected to occur in June, July, and August of 2008. Data analysis to define community classification is expected to begin in the fall of 2008.

The delineation effort is expected to start in the spring of 2008 and should be completed by spring 2009. Further refinements and additional delineations may occur following the accuracy assessment to produce the final map.

Linking the plant community classification to the delineated map is expected to occur in winter of 2009 with field accuracy assessments to occur in spring and summer of 2009. The final report and project completion is expected in 2010.

Publications, Theses, Reports, etc.

Because the project has just begun, no publications or reports have been produced.

Investigators and Affiliations

Roger D. Blew, Ecologist, Environmental Surveillance, Education and Research Program, S.M. Stoller Corp, Idaho Falls, Idaho

Amy D. Forman, Plant Ecologist, Environmental Surveillance, Education and Research Program,
S.M. Stoller Corp, Idaho Falls, Idaho

Jeremy P. Shive, GIS/Remote Sensing Specialist and Wildlife Biologist, Environmental Surveillance, Education and Research Program, S.M. Stoller Corp, Idaho Falls, Idaho

Funding Sources

U.S. Department of Energy, Idaho Operations Office.

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