Q: TWI has a full-time GIS analyst on staff. How does GIS technology get used in wetland restoration?

Geographic information systems (GIS) are integral to TWI's work in many ways, but first—for those who don't know what GIS is—it's the capture, analysis, and display of information with a geographic or spatial component.

Information can be captured in many ways: most simply by downloading it from an existing database (for example, land elevations in a given area) or with more complexity by using a hand-held GPS to record location points associated with a specific variable of interest (for example, where a particular animal was sighted). Once captured, the different types of data can be layered and analyzed in innumerable ways and then displayed, often in the form of a map. There are many applications of GIS, the most familiar of which is probably the navigation system now common in cars.


At TWI, I use GIS mainly in two ways: at the beginning of a project to create a blueprint for the site’s ecological restoration plan and then, as restoration proceeds, to monitor changes in the site's habitats and other characteristics over time. Consequently, I create a variety of maps for different audiences, including ecologists, contractors, and funders, but I also calculate acreages, volumes, and distances to help determine project timelines and costs. One example of its usefulness in restoration planning is TWI's new project at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Lobelia Meadows, where GIS mapping will help us bring back globally rare habitat types.

Lobelia Meadows is a 160-acre site within Midewin that once included globally rare dolomite prairie and wetland habitats. These habitats are found in areas of shallow soils where dolomite bedrock is close to the surface, altering the soil chemistry so that very specialized plant communities grow there. Restoring these imperiled habitats at Midewin will allow the reintroduction of unique, range-restricted plants that depend on dolomite, such as the federally endangered leafy prairie-clover.

In planning the restoration of Lobelia Meadows, I went to the site with TWI's ecologists to perform extensive soil sampling. With a hand-held GPS, I recorded the locations where we found dolomite 12 inches or closer to the surface. I then created a map highlighting these areas, which represent spots with the greatest potential for supporting those dolomite-loving plants, and this winter seed will be distributed according to the map. We have created other maps for Lobelia Meadows as well based on different characteristics (for example, topography and plant communities) that will guide restoration of the site back to its original mosaic of marsh, wet meadow, wet prairie, and mesic prairie.

At the Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, TWI's most mature restoration, I use GIS to help with habitat surveys, which chart the progress of plant communities from year to year and help the ecologists plan for management of invasives, new planting of native species, and other activities. I work with TWI's ecologists to identify plant species at 240 survey points throughout the Refuge—100 of which are actually in the lakes—for my GIS monitoring there. We then use these species data, along with satellite imagery and contour data, to map 19 different habitat types at the Refuge; when compared from survey to survey, these maps show any habitat changes over time. From 2008 to 2010, for example, the maps showed a marked shift toward wetter habitat types (e.g., wet prairie becoming wet meadow), particularly in the north-central and western sections of the Refuge (see below).

These days at TWI, I am also using GIS to identify potential sites for a new landscape-scale restoration project somewhere in the vast Illinois River Basin. TWI staff and board members use the maps and other materials that I generate through GIS as the foundation for their methodical new-project review process. As amazing as GIS technology is, though, we are careful not to become armchair decisionmakers and it'll be impossible to make a final choice without visiting the best prospects in person. Time for a road trip—and maybe I'll bring along my paper Illinois Atlas & Gazetteer for old time's sake.

~Jim Monchak, GIS analyst, the Wetlands Initiative