In This State: With this new map, a different way of seeing the state

In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at

Project leader Eric Sorenson discusses a state aquatics resources map, which is one of the 21 “layers” that will comprise a remarkable new “BioFinder” map created using GIS computer technology, showing all of the state’s natural resources in one graphical interface. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

For thousands of years, maps have been a way of knowing and understanding the world where we live: What’s around us, from rivers to mountains, deserts and forests, oceans and reefs, fearsome animals and people. And for most of those years, the only thing that changed about maps was their accuracy (improved) and availability (increased), thanks to the advent of printing techniques around the 15th century.

Now? Take just about everything you understand about maps and chuck it out, including the idea they should be on paper. Then walk into the spartan and unassuming temporary office (thanks to Tropical Storm Irene) of a youthful UVM grad named Erik Engstrom to see the face of modern mapping.

There on Route 2 just north of Waterbury, Engstrom deals in the arcane language of raster and vector data formats, ArcGis Server and Latitude Geocortx software as he manipulates images and information on computers from his desk, a “passion” he’s been enjoying for nearly nine years.

Translated into plain English, he’s a modern-day mapmaker, the heir to ancient Babylonian mappers drawing on clay tablets and Greek and medieval cartographers – except his drawing is done via the two monitors on his desk through the ever-growing capabilities of Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

The ancient mapmakers would be gobsmacked, to use a wonderful British expression, but even a GPS and G4 generation living on smartphones and satellites will find much to wonder at.

Engstrom works for the Agency of Natural Resources, and he’s at the data-processing end of a cutting-edge natural resources mapping project for the agency called “Bio-Finder.” Not only will it create a whole new way to look at Vermont, but this map will underscore that GIS is bringing a revolution to what maps can do.

“It’s amazing how it’s evolved,” says Engstrom, who, even from his view knee-deep in graphic data, marvels at the technological advances.

To understand his project, you have to leave Engstrom and his two talented GIS cohorts at the computer end and go to its roots, which are literally out in the field, and the forests and bogs and river habitats that Eric Sorenson has been wading, walking through, studying and writing about since 1989. He’s an ecologist with the Fish & Wildlife Department, co-author of “Wetland, Woodland, Wildland, A Guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont,” and a rigorous scientist whose encyclopedic knowledge of Vermont’s natural heritage have won him awards and high respect.

For nearly a year and a half, from his Barre office, Sorenson has been leading a team effort involving some 40 staffers at ANR, federal and non-profit partners. The goal? To create a map-to-end-all-maps of the state’s natural resources. Think everything from where endangered species are to where oak forests or deer yards and wildlife corridors are, riparian areas and wetlands, animal and plant species and topographic features.

In sum, the whole natural world kit and caboodle: decades of vital and informative data compiled by the agency through thousands of hours of staffers’ firsthand observations, measurements and species identifications, and all correlated to satellite geographic imagery of the state’s terrain.

You can begin to understand why he says the project is kind of “mind-boggling.”

Sorenson Friday gave ANR leaders a briefing on the mapping effort, which is funded by a $100,000 grant obtained by agency Secretary Deb Markowitz. Despite the complexity because of its scope and amount of data, Sorenson says the project has taken “a pretty simple approach.”

The idea, he explains, is to sort information in manageable layers that can be viewed separately or stacked on each other in almost unlimited combinations, each of which will yield a different view – or map – of the state.

When the project is finished with a website launch by the end of the year, it will create what amounts to an incredibly rich 21-layer natural resources cake, offering a feast of information that any Vermonter with a fast computer, and any scientist or organization with a desire to drill down for data, will be able to access.

Agency of Natural Resources Geographic Information Systems specialist Erik Engstrom has spent 10 months working on a 21-layer computerized map of Vermont. When it is finished around the end of the year, it will show all of the state’s natural resources, compiling decades of data and information in one in remarkable visual map. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

The 21 “component layers” fall into three major categories, he explains, landscape, aquatic, and species and natural community. For the agency and citizen planners at every level as well as a host of other professions, the map will allow quick sorting for a host of natural resource criteria. Whether it’s a land use permit request, an invasive species threat, flooding or agricultural runoff concerns, septic questions on what type of soils are located where, the Bio-Finder map will offer answers and show where there are, or aren’t, high-priority resources to protect.

“It’s a chance for the agency to compile the tons of data that we have on many different features and put them into one place where they can be stacked up to see where you have co-occurrences,” Sorenson explains.

While numerical data can cause the eyes to glaze, there is something captivating to the eye and brain about a multi-hued map that presents the same information in a graphical way. This becomes evident as natural resources mapping specialist Charlie Hohn clicks through a brightly colored map of the Victory State Forest in the Northeast Kingdom as he works in Sorenson’s office.

Watching Hohn, Sorenson laughs as he recalls the old days of flipping mylar overlays to show different natural resources on a state map.

It’s not just old-fashioned methodology that has changed. With mylar maps you might have had to dig up a dozen different reports to get details. But Bio-Finder will store immense amounts of background information right in the graphics of the map. With a click of the mouse you’ll get elevations, soil types, tree species information, an almost unlimited set of detailed data on your little corner of Vermont – or any other corner you’re interested in.

This level of detail has made Engstrom’s life interesting for the last 10 months he’s been working on the project. “The amount of data with this project has been a challenge,” he admits, noting it’s being done on a high-resolution level of 10-meter grid cells instead of the previous 30-meter standard. Imagine the difference in detail between looking at a patch of grass standing up versus putting your head a foot away, and you begin to get an idea of the billions of pixels and data bits it takes to cover the state’s 9,216 square miles with 21 different information layers.

Engstrom says the map would have been impossible to do a few years ago, but today faster computer processors allow the data that in the past might have taken 24 hours to load to only take an hour or two.

Sorenson sees myriad uses for the map beyond conservation planning and regulatory reviews, such as using it as an educational tool. More than that, he’s eager to see the map launched to give Vermonters a new way of appreciating a state he calls incredibly diverse and “biologically rich” in its nature.

An avid runner who lives in the rural hills of Calais, as the finish line draws near, he turns to a running analogy to describe his feelings.

“It hasn’t been a marathon but it’s been a lot of intense work over a long period,” he says.

Andrew Nemethy

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