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USGS Vegetation Characterization Program Continues to Break New Ground

Since 1996, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has collaborated with the National Park Service (NPS) to create national vegetation standards, tools, and products—primarily detailed maps that are publicly available over the Internet at The programs carrying out this important work are the USGS Vegetation Characterization Program (VCP) and the NPS Inventory and Monitoring Program (I&M).

The VCP is a data service component of the I&M Using a set of standards and protocols, VCP scientists and technicians are focused on classifying, describing, and mapping vegetation communities for all of the 280 National Park units with monitoring programs. Complete documentation is currently available for 117 park units.

High-quality vegetation land cover data are critical to the wise conservation of the nation's lands and wildlife habitat. NPS managers are confronted with increasingly complex and challenging issues that require a broad-based understanding of each park's natural resources, including its vegetation. Data and information provided through the VCP fills and complements a wide variety of resource assessment, park management, and conservation needs. For instance, gaining a more precise understanding of park vegetation helps park managers conserve plant biodiversity, manage challenges such as invasive species and plant diseases, and acquire a firmer understanding of wildland fires as well as wildlife habitat relationships.

National Vegetation Classification Standard

A standard product made available for each park by the VCP is a digital map of existing vegetation in the park that meets National Mapping Accuracy Standards at a scale of 1:24,000 (objects have been reduced to 1/24,000 of their actual size). Park vegetation is mapped to a minimum mapping unit of 0.5 hectares at the cover type/community type level of the National Vegetation Classification Standard (NVCS and, a standard of the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), which is tasked to develop standards for geospatial (geographically referenced) data that enable the sharing of that data.

VCP-I&M is the first vegetation inventory to widely employ the NVCS. The resulting data—the most detailed, finest resolution vegetation land cover data publicly available—can be accessed through a map viewer, or downloaded to be integrated and analyzed with other information.

A First in Two Ways

The landmark VCP-I&M is both the first to provide national-scale descriptions of vegetation for a federal agency and the first to create national vegetation standards for its data products. It is meeting specific information needs identified by the NPS, with additional cooperative projects for the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Documentation is currently available for two USFWS refuge units.

Products for each completed park available on the VCP Web site include aerial photography, project reports, field data, geospatial vegetation information, accuracy assessment information, FGDC-compliant metadata, and a link to NPS or USFWS information about the park, national monument, or refuge under consideration. Before posting, all of this information has been assessed by VCP staff for quality and consistency with VCP standards, naming conventions, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and so forth.

One example among thousands of the application of VCP data can be found in Acadia National Park, which is located on Mount Desert Island on the coast of Maine. The focus is a 57-mile network of rustic carriage trails that weave throughout the park. Originally meant for the enjoyment of people riding in open carriages, on horseback, or on a bicycle, the paths were painstakingly located to present a series of scenic vistas that displayed Mount Desert at its best. The trails were the gift of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who meticulously oversaw their construction from 1913–1940. Today the park is rehabilitating some of the vistas from the trails and is finding VCP vegetation mapping data especially useful. Vegetation height and density classes will be integrated into the design to recreate the scenes that Mr. Rockefeller labored so diligently to highlight.


One tool that has been developed through the VCP, in collaboration with NPS and NatureServe, is the PLOTS database. PLOTS is used to capture and analyze field survey information on vegetation for taxonomy and accuracy assessment. The PLOTS tool is available for download by others to use in implementing field or mapping studies of vegetation or for use in helping document and standardize the lower-level classifications of the NVCS.

PLOTS is now used by NPS in the collection of taxonomic data necessary for vegetation inventories. Use of the PLOTS tool can enable a framework for many different collaborating agencies, organizations, and scientists to cooperate in naming and describing the thousands of different vegetation cover and community types known to exist in the United States.

You can learn more about PLOTS at

VCP and The National Map

One of the most exciting VCP innovations coming in the near future is having VCP-I&M data available through The National Map (TNM) and its viewer. TNM is a collaborative effort among the USGS and other federal, state, and local partners to improve and deliver topographic information for the nation (information related to the Earth's surface shape and features). TNM is responsible for supplying base layers of geographic data for the nation.

TNM Viewer provides data visualization and download capabilities. Data for about 20 parks are currently being tested with the viewer prototype; all have performed satisfactorily. Once the testing is completed and the data are available, VCP-I&M will add a link on its download pages that will whisk users to the viewer. At that point, users will be able to instantaneously view the pages without waiting for them to download.

If you would like more information about the integration of VCP-I&M data in The National Map, contact Rob Dollison at For more information about VCP-I&M, contact Mike Mulligan at

Showing The National Map Viewer: Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park vegetation data will soon be available via The National Map Viewer.