This paper details the management struggles of a GIS within the National Forests in Florida’s (NFF) larger land management emphasis. The courtship began with high expectations and Management’s full support. However, GIS never integrated into our traditional organization and remains a map tool in many Managers’ minds. We have to shift our thinking and our organization to start managing information as a resource. Only then will we be able to reap the true benefits of a GIS, sharing data across resource specialties that will lead to better land management decisions.
If you do not know the difference between a Clean or a Build, this paper is for you. If you do know the difference but work for someone who’s eyes glaze over every time you try to explain it, this paper is for you as well. It’s time to bridge the gap between managers and GIS techies, so that GIS programs are not left wandering around wondering how best to meet the needs of the organization. I hope that by sharing the story of the National Forests in Florida’s GIS program, everyone who works with a GIS will receive some insight and tools that will keep your GIS firmly attached to your business realities. First, I will tell you about the Forest Service and specifically our Forests, the National Forests in Florida. I will try to summarize 15 years of problems and accomplishments so that you can better understand our working environment. Finally, I will present some of the ideas and programs we are implementing to make our GIS program an integrated part of our information management strategy, and an integral tool for resource management decisions.
The Forest Service is the largest agency within the Department of Agriculture. Our management structure tends to be of a military style with a strong chain of command. There are 4 levels within our organization starting with the Chief of the Forest Service who is located in the Washington Office (WO). He and his staff deal directly with Congress and the Administration and set overall policies and guidelines. There are 9 Regions, consisting of several Forests within a geographic area. Each Region is served by a Regional Forester and a Regional Office staff. These offices set direction based on the similar ecosystems located within their areas and are staffed by a broad spectrum of specialists. The third level of our organization consists of the actual National Forests, which are managed by a Forest Supervisor and their staff. These offices are charged with forming long range plans on Forest lands and often work closely with State agencies. Finally, the District Ranger’s Offices are located in or near the Forest and are responsible for all on-the-ground activities. This is called the field level and there are a variety of natural resource specialists who work at this level as well, silviculturists, recreation assistants, archeologists, botanists, fire management, and wildlife biologists, to name just a few.
The National Forests in Florida is composed of 3 separate Forests, the Apalachicola, the Ocala, and the Osceola. The Apalachicola National Forest is located in the Florida panhandle and is the largest Forest with over 630,000 acres. The Ocala is located in north Central Florida, about 60 miles north of Orlando, and contains close to 400,000 acres. The Osceola is located in north Florida near the Georgia line and is being expanded to connect to the Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Our total workforce is approximately 200 employees, spread out over 6 offices. Most employees have Pentium 2 or 3 PC’s networked with a Unix server. Offices are connected using T1 lines and are one network cell, allowing complete data and information sharing within the Forest. We are using Arcview 3.2 for day-to-day map production and analysis and ArcInfo 7.2 for data updates and more complex projects. There are three full time GIS employees and approximately 60 GIS users. All users are responsible for making their own map products and all data management is performed at the District Rangers offices. A current example of how we use GIS to help in our analysis and management is the Southern Pine Beetle outbreak occurring on the Seminole Ranger District of the Ocala National Forest. These beetles spread quickly and infest and kill a variety of pine tree species. Currently there are over 115 beetle spots and District employees are developing an Environmental Analysis that will guide our control efforts. Beetle spots are GPS’d from a helicopter and then entered into a GIS point coverage. These points are joined with our vegetation data layer so that our natural resource specialists can do queries based on timber types and management areas. The Wildlife Biologist and Archeologist overlay their GIS data to see how the proposed control actions could impact historic sites or endangered species such as the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. Time spent analyzing these impacts was reduced because these specialists could concentrate on visiting those spots that were near sensitive areas and use the Arcview maps to show all pertinent data.
We have been at a “production” level use of our GIS for quite a while. The National Forests in Florida started working on data preparation approximately 14 years ago and so Management’s commitment to a GIS program started even farther back. The Southern Regional Office was the initiating force when it began a Region-wide GIS program in the mid 1980’s. Their focus was on developing Forest wide data coverages maintaining linear coincidence among related features. By the early 90’s, all of Florida’s District Offices had received their data and PC Arc/Info and began the process of switching to a digital environment. Everything was command line driven and located on one 386 PC per office, so users were limited to those titled GIS Editors and the technologically interested. Managers loved the maps and employees would gather round to watch the 3 pen plotter turn out a new creation. However, as time went on, map requests became more numerous and complex. Standard map products, such as timber sale contract maps, had to be done using the same symbols as in the Forest Service Manual. These symbols were designed for hand cartography and not the digital type. Other employees wanted to try making maps or editing data but were limited because of the complex nature of the command line. SML popup menus were attempted and met limited success but could not be maintained at the District office due to lack of programming skills or time. Managers saw employees who were able to handle GIS responsibilities using only 25% of their time slowly evolve into 50% and finally 100% of their responsibilities. The purchase of UNIX x-terminals, ArcInfo, and Arcview in 1995 opened the door for all interested users to have access to very powerful GIS tools, however, now there were more demands for training, assistance and an explosion of data creation. There were no guidelines or processes on how to manage such a program nor even how to set reasonable expectations for GIS employees. This has left Managers feeling out of control of a program that impacts most of their resource specialists and leaves GIS employees trying to guess at the best way to help users.
Currently, Forest employees and Managers appear to have an underlying degree of frustration with GIS and other software / hardware applications. The reasons appear to be similar. Most of our GIS users are resource specialists who only occasionally need a map or to perform some sort of data analysis, perhaps every other month or even only once per year. Arcview was an excellent help for these users, since it is windows driven and relatively user-friendly. However, the motto “if you don’t use it, you lose it”, holds true and these types of users are constantly spending time re-training themselves and therefore taking time away from their other duties. Add the normal delays associated with computers, problems with printers, servers going down, etc., and users often become frustrated and feeling defeated. This same problem of only occasional use plagues all areas of the Forest, wherever employees are tasked to use fairly complex software or hardware infrequently. Managers have seen their employees impacted both by the benefits of increased work capacity provided by digital technologies and the negatives. They are left feeling helpless when they are unable to resolve employees’ problems. Program complexities and the constant changes in software and hardware have left them behind if they were ever even trained in certain programs.
Supervision and upward movement in this Agency were once based on Managers being “experts” in their field or in a variety of fields and therefore being able to provide guidance to lower level employees. This situation no longer exists and lower level employees must often resolve their own problems and have had to become technology experts. This further removes Managers from the needs of their employees and problems have been left to continue for years simply because there was no reporting mechanism or even an awareness that there could be solutions to the problems. Additionally, our GIS program is used to help accomplish work targets, but is not specifically tasked with work by higher levels, so there is little to gauge the success or failure of the program and it’s employees. This has led to instances of technology running amok, databases or software being over-designed because there was no oversight by Management and appropriate mission specific checks in place.
Generally, our problems can be boiled down into 4 areas: § Managers need tools/processes/guidelines to manage the information technology side of their programs. § GIS does not seem to fit in the traditional work planning process of the Forest Service and has sometimes lost connection with the main mission of the Forest. § Occasional Users need different support than constant users. § Computer technologies and the inherent constant changes have changed the structure of the Supervisor/employee relationship.
So we in Florida have decided to find solutions to these problems and develop an overall plan for bringing our GIS program back into line with our mission of Caring for the Land and Serving the People. We have taken a further step and are addressing all Information Technology needs with a similar plan, since so many of these problems are not limited to the GIS world. This process started with the re-formation of the Information Resource Management (IRM) board back in the spring of 2000. The Forest does not have an Information Manager and created the Board to fill the role to set priorities on a Forest wide basis to support various information needs, software applications and hardware that fall within the scope of the board. That scope being, anything that stores or manipulates information and the information itself. One of the main things that needed to occur was to provide ways for employees to communicate their needs to management, the information systems group and the GIS program. This was done by developing an Information Needs Assessment (INA) covering all software/hardware and technology projects. This consisted of a survey asking employees to give input on training needs, issues and concerns, hardware problems and projects that needed to be developed. These surveys were then compiled by office and then for the entire Forest and developed into an Action Plan that will be presented to the Leadership Team for their review. The Action plan lists all technology-oriented training needed by the Forest as well as specific methods to meet those needs. It lists projects that have Forest-wide significance and can be used by Management to set priorities and work plans. Employees’ issues and concerns are addressed and Forest Information processes are detailed for development into Forest policy statements. This action plan gives Managers not only an idea of their employees’ needs but also a way to gauge their programs success. Now GIS employees will have a work plan based on the needs of the Forest and hopefully based on the Forest’s mission.
The current action plan has proposed several ways to meet the needs of occasional users. A project to create Arcview tools to help with standard map products should take some of the guesswork out of the process. Plus requiring training to be provided both during implementation and after should raise employees’ confidence levels. In addition, we are hoping to start mini-training sessions using Netmeeting and conference calls for the purpose of refreshing users skills and showing them tips and shortcuts that might help them. Also, we will be posting user help notes on our internal web site for easy access by employees should they need a slight refresher. Finally, to address the changes in roles when it comes to technology, we are going to designate Technical Leaders for each of the various applications or hardware, so that employees’ can help support each other. These employees are the experts or gurus in a software or hardware. The leader position will require that they be willing to help other users on the Forest and provide them with opportunities for advanced training. All of these ideas will hopefully provide various avenues for employees to receive help and will relieve Managers from their dilemma of how to guide programs that they feel they know little about. However, more changes are on the way, and these processes were developed to meet old needs so there will probably be more growing pains that we will need to face.
In the future, the Forest Service will have national resource applications, for everything from air quality, trail inventories and fire risk assessments. The development of these tools and core data standards have been in the process for several years and are now just beginning to be seen at the field level. This means that old databases such as the one the National Forests in Florida has will need to be tweaked and changed to meet these new standards--and employees will have new software tools to learn and deal with. Hopefully, these tools will come fully supported and take into account the limited time field employees have for all their duties. Hardware changes will continue to provide users with smaller and more powerful packages. These changes will be excellent tools for field going employees but must be supported and properly managed. The IRM board has several statements that they hope will provide guidance through these changes.
Some of them are: § Information is a valuable resource and must be managed as carefully as any natural resource. § All computer applications, software and/or hardware that are designated as Forest-wide needs must be user friendly and supported by the Forest, other levels of the agency, or outside commercial vendors. Support will include but is not limited to, adequate training opportunities, manuals, helpdesks, and appointed forest “Technical Leaders”. § All information collected or needed by the Forest will be made available in a useable format, to all those who need it. The goal of the Forest would be to get all information into an electronic format as early in a process as possible. The guideline being, collect data once and use many times. § Information collection and manipulation is necessary to help accomplish the mission of the National Forests in Florida but should not become more work than the mission itself. Therefore, all applications/hardware will be chosen or implemented based on getting the job done on the ground in an easier, faster or more efficient manner.
Through the years we have often stopped to ask, “Doesn’t anyone else have these same problems?” I believe there are many organizations that diagnosed these same problems early in their implementation process or planned ahead and avoided them altogether. We are just thankful that we are moving ahead and integrating GIS into a better position in our organization and have a process in place to provide for our employees’ needs in the future. The Forest Service is an old organization that has survived through many changes and will adapt to meet the changes caused by technology. The National Forests in Florida was an early implementer of GIS technology but has struggled with how best to incorporate the program into it’s organization. We now feel that information management will take a much a larger role in our day-to-day plans and lead the Forest into having better information, in a more accessible format and provide Managers and employees with the tools they need to make better Land Management decisions. The honeymoon is over but the marriage of GIS and the National Forests in Florida is on solid ground.
I would like to thank Doug Logan, Bobby Grinstead, Charlie Studyvin and Ray Willis for reviewing and editing this paper. I am also indebted forever to my husband John and daughter Carly for putting up with me while I was meditating over how to write this paper. Finally, I give credit to God for allowing me to put my thoughts and ideas down on paper. I hope they will bless others who find themselves in similar situations.