Alaska Tribes Employ LiDAR for Insights into Managing Natural Resources

October 31, 2018
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Alaska is a place known to many as the Great Land. Its vast lands and clean waters are legendary for their fish and wildlife. Alaska’s bears, eagles and the world’s largest runs of wild salmon all rely on healthy habitat.

In Alaska, longstanding rich traditions of harvesting food from lands and waters are a way of life. This includes a great variety of wild foods, such as salmon, deer and berries. These traditions mean that healthy lands and waters are a matter of vital importance in Alaska’s Indigenous communities. But climate change is affecting the way of life in much of Alaska.

Some Alaska Native tribes and organizations are developing and implementing a variety of management plans for lands and waters they’ve traditionally relied on to sustain them. Some federally recognized tribes, such as the Metlakatla Indian Community and Organized Village of Kake, are going high-tech in this pursuit. They are leveraging innovations in mapping and geospatial remote sensing, including use of high-resolution LiDAR, to gain greater insights about their natural resources and help them become even better stewards of their environment, while protecting and enhancing their traditional way of life.

Facing Environmental and Economic Challenges

Located in Southeast Alaska, the community of Metlakatla has a population of about 1,500 residents living on remote Annette Island, which features a rugged landscape spanning about 130 square miles of land with hundreds of streams, lakes and ponds. The tribe’s economy is principally tied to fishing, seafood processing, services, tourism and forest products.

Over the years, though, the Metlakatla Indian Community “has been experiencing the detrimental impacts from climate change, increased temperatures, reduced rainfall and higher tides,” which could impact all facets of their economy, said Genelle Winter, the Metlakatla tribe’s climate and energy grant coordinator and invasive species program director.

The village of Kake is home to about 600 residents. There, tribal leaders from the Organized Village of Kake are examining ways to address potential over-harvesting of various plant species and enhance biodiversity across an area of land measuring 8 square miles in addition to 6 square miles of water. Leaders from the Organized Village of Kake continue to seek ways to protect and preserve gathering practices. “These practices are important to our subsistence activities, and improve tribal members' quality of life through development of economic enterprises,” said Dawn Jackson, executive director for Organized Village of Kake.

The use of LiDAR, also, “will give us accurate information on the condition of our tribe’s road inventory in our tribal transportation program,” said Mike Jackson, director of transportation for Organized Village of Kale. “With the LiDAR data, we will be able to place our bridges accurately and be able to track and assess the structural conditions of the bridges. And the survey will provide us with critical information about watershed conditions and aid us in determining what types of weather events we may have to plan for in our changing climate.” 

Building Collaborative Partnerships

There are many other groups throughout Alaska that share the same goals as these tribal organizations. These include The Nature Conservancy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Forest Service, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, which brings together international, regional, community-based organizations and tribal governments in rural southeastern Alaskan villages.

Because the area has lacked maps with sufficient detail in comparison to other U.S. states, individuals from these groups have been working together to attain high-resolution aerial imaging across Prince of Wales Island and other areas of southeastern Alaska in order to make mapping data available to anyone who needs it without exclusion. They believe that this information would be valuable in a number of ways, such as public safety, protecting natural resources, identifying geohazards, land use, and for a variety of state and federal programs.

The biggest hurdle for these groups was the cost of LiDAR surveys, which was prohibitive for one group alone. Even after combining resources, the cost was still a challenge. Since they shared a common interest in mapping a similar geographic region, many of these groups banded together to secure matching funding from the United States Geological Survey 3D Elevation Program. The USGS developed 3DEP to identify elevation data gaps, foster partnerships among groups that had common geospatial needs and project scopes, and help minimize costs and improve the impact of a project.

After winning a 3DEP award in 2017, The Nature Conservancy, the USFS and regional Alaska Native Corporation Sealaska, with support from Alaska's DNR and local tribes, began the first phase of their LiDAR survey. Geospatial data firm Quantum Spatial Inc. conducted aerial acquisitions from May through September, using LiDAR to survey approximately 2,166 square miles across Prince of Wales Island and surrounding areas at the QL1 data quality level.

Among the output from this initial survey were raw point cloud data; classified point cloud data; a hydro-flattened, bare earth DEM; hydro and bridge break lines; intensity imagery; automated contours; automated building footprints; a digital surface model; automated vegetation classifications; and shaded relief rasters.

Learning about the work being done by this group, both the Metlakatla Indian Community and Organized Village of Kake reached out to see how they could participate and benefit from the geospatial data being collected. These tribal organizations are now part of Phase 2 of the Prince of Wales 3DEP project, which was awarded funding in early 2018. Phase 2 surveys took place this summer covering another 1,101 square miles.

Combining Cutting-Edge Technology with Traditional Practices

“We immediately saw the benefit of the 3DEP project to all of our natural resources programs – fisheries, forestry, aggregate and invasive species – as well as a means to leverage the data for a planned Integrated Resources Management Plan,” said Winter, from the Metlakatla tribal staff. “This LiDAR data will be an initial tool in a much larger toolbox, which will help inform strategic planning that will benefit the long-term health of our natural resources, as well as benefit our community both now and into the future.”

Winter expects the LiDAR survey to provide accurate data of Metlakatla’s remote island, establishing accurate baseline elevation modeling that will inform feasibility of forest management activities, including subsistence uses. “We are shifting our forest management plan goals away from simply using the forest as a resource for timber extraction, incorporating more of our tribe’s traditional values, such as subsistence gathering and harvesting,” she noted.

Management of the island’s water resources is equally as critical for the Metlakatla Indian Community. “Our fisheries are a vital lifeline to our community, both commercially and for providing essential subsistence resources,” she noted. “Accurate stream modeling data will ensure that fish are not adversely impacted in any way and provide information that will be useful in development of grants proposals to improve fish habitat. It will also help us set priorities for restoration to increase spawning and small fry rearing sites within streams.”

Metlakatla relies on hydropower energy from Chester and Purple Lakes and Winter said the LiDAR data will help the leaders make informed resource management decisions related to those, and other lakes on the island. She also expects the data to be useful for emergency planning and other community development planning, such as housing, land use and pre-disaster hazard mitigation.

The Organized Village of Kake anticipates that the LiDAR data will offer valuable insights to the Keex’ Kwaan Community Forest Partnership, a community-based natural resource management group that also includes Sealaska, Organized Village of Kake, SE Alaska Land Trust, the Sustainable Southeast Partnership, The Nature Conservancy, SEAWEAD, Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the USFS as core partners. “The Keex’ Kwaan Community Forest Partnership will evaluate the data to help dictate what can be harvested on the ground by different landowners, and inform us of what areas should be left alone to heal and replenish,” Jackson said.

Jackson also hopes the information garnered from the LiDAR survey will have a positive impact on economic development in her village. Greater insights into the species of plants and harvesting could “inspire local citizens to start thinking about cottage industries,” she said. “There’s nothing better than citizens knowing how to manage sustainability and be their own boss.”

For both tribes, many of the natural resources on which they have relied for centuries can benefit from the LiDAR data. When used effectively, this geospatial information will present a unique and valuable opportunity to address climate change and inform planning decisions for generations to come, providing endless ways to integrate cutting-edge technology with traditional practices for managing the natural resources on tribal land.

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