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NRCS in Wyoming Continues Lidar Data Acquisition to Improve Conservation Efforts

Since the devastating Kaycee floods in 2002, Natural Resources Conservation Service has helped lead lidar, or Light Detection and Ranging, collection efforts in Wyoming. Wyoming NRCS has relied on the NRCS’ National Geospatial Center of Excellence to assist on all lidar efforts since then. Lidar is a technology that uses light or laser pulses to illuminate areas of the ground and measure the distance and return time. The results provide an extremely accurate image detailing the contours of the earth’s surface, as well as vegetation and other features above the surface.

In 2018, an effort began to collect lidar over the entire state of Wyoming. NGCE, along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and other partners are collaborating on these efforts.  This project already has over one-third of Wyoming counties collected and another third funded for collection this year.

Why the push for lidar? New elevation data is needed to replace the legacy topographic maps and datasets that are out of date and do not have the quality or resolution to support conservation planning and design. Currently, lidar data is being utilized extensively in agricultural, forestry, and engineering settings, as well as other resource assessment applications. The data provides land use managers accurate topographic data to plan, design, and implement conservation practices.

“What we’re getting eventually will be a digital dataset consisting of a set of pixels covering the state where each pixel is one square meter in size,” said Randy Wiggins, a geographic information science specialist with NRCS in Wyoming. “Within each one of these pixels, we’ll know the X and Y coordinates (latitude and longitude) and the Z coordinate (elevation) accurate to within 6 inches. With that information, we’ll be able to create countless detailed mapping products that will allow us to better support ag and conservation.”

Traditionally, NRCS has used lidar for engineering projects such as floodwall design, inundation analysis on floods and stream restoration. Other uses to-date include wildfire hazard analysis, soil mapping and cultural resource mapping. In the future, NRCS hopes to further expand uses to include sage-grouse habitat analysis, rangeland analysis, fence mapping, vegetative height class mapping and more detailed forest land mapping.

“A product that we’re really excited about is the ability to do vegetative analysis and cultural resources type investigations,” said Andi Neugebauer, State Resource Conservationist for NRCS Wyoming.

NRCS has a national strategy to acquire, integrate, and deliver high quality elevation data that meets the Agency's geospatial requirements. High quality digital elevation data will support the Agency business activities by improving employee effectiveness and efficiency in aiding our customers through the use of digital elevation models, hillshades, slope, and contour map and data products.

“I have high hopes of using the data to better map our forest lands, sage grouse habitat, rangeland vegetation, riparian areas, wetlands and fences to name a few things off the top of my head,” said Wiggins. “I think it will eventually lead us to more accurate soils maps and better grazing response area calculations as well.”

NRCS engineers also benefit from lidar data.

“Lidar data was used for the design of a streambank stabilization project,” said Duane Beemer, state design engineer for NRCS in Wyoming. “Since the lidar at the site was generated 16 years ago, manually collected survey data was provided for the stream channel. Once the lidar was adjusted to the survey data, its floodplain data from lidar was used for hydraulic modeling and design quantity calculations. Having the lidar data saved time from surveying the extensive floodplain and provided a more detailed digital elevation model for hydraulic modeling and quantity calculations.”

A detailed study conducted in 2010 solidified the positive return on investment for lidar operations. From that study, a conservative estimate of the annual benefits that can be realized by NRCS from the 3D Elevation Partnership is $78.7 million. While the study did not include Wyoming, one example from Kansas showed the use of lidar saved $3,538,885 or 93,221 hours in a 12-month period.

“Although there is some significant up-front cost to acquiring lidar data, that data is then good for six, seven, eight years or more,” said Collin McCormick, National Elevation Leader with NRCS National Geospatial Center of Excellence. “In the example of Kansas, the study estimates it will recoup its investment after 1.4 years of using lidar for the assessed applications, so NRCS’ return on investment for lidar is substantial.”

Funding for lidar data acquisition comes from a combination of federal partnerships, particularly with the 3D Elevation Partnership managed by USGS. Nationally, NRCS has committed $30 million for the collection of lidar data across the country in fiscal year 2020.