Natural Resource Condition Assessment for Booker T. Washington National Monument

Post by Heather Courtenay ’16

In the background of the rest of the SAL research, Dr. Lookingbill and I have been working on revisions for a paper that was started last summer on Booker T. Washington National Monument (BOWA). The paper is a Natural Resource Condition Assessment (NRCA) for the National Park Service, which is formulated to assess and record park resource conditions, accompanying more traditional threat-based assessments. An NRCA reports on the current and trending conditions, data gaps, and confidence levels for selected park natural resource indicators. The report can be used by park managers to address park priorities, identify data needs for resources, and further communicate park resource conditions to wider audiences. The goal of the report is to provide information based on scientific data and analysis, which can then be used in park planning and partnerships.

Booker T. Washington National Monument memorializes the birthplace of one of America’s most influential African American, Booker T. Washington. The site was established as a National Monument in 1956 by Congress. Today, BOWA is a 239 acre park that contains many interpretive replicas of buildings and farm installations, as well as a visitor’s center and an old school building. The park is within the Piedmont region of Virginia, and is situated in the Roanoke River and Albemarle Sound watersheds. Threats to the park’s natural resources are found inside the park (e.g., invasive species, erosion), outside the park boundaries (e.g., water contamination), and the greater region (e.g., air pollution).


Key Characteristics of Booker T. Washington National Monument in a conceptual diagram showing the natural resource assets and stressors in and around the park.

Multiple metrics are used to assess the health of the park, and datum must be collected from various monitoring reports, such as the National Park Service Inventory and Monitoring Program, and park-specific databases. Once the 16 vital sign metrics were identified, a threshold level was set based on scientific literature and management goals. This threshold acts as a reference point from which to gauge the status of the vital sign. Attainment of thresholds for each metric were calculated from the percentage of sites or samples that reached or exceeded the threshold value. A metric attainment score of 100% indicated that the metric met the threshold identified to maintain the resource in all instances. Once all of the attainment scores were calculated, an unweighted mean was calculated to assess the condition of each vital sign category for the park as a whole. The natural resources of BOWA were found to warrant moderate concern, reaching 57% of desired thresholds.

Vital sign categories and metrics used in assessing of Booker T. Washington National Monument

Vital sign categories and metrics used in assessing of Booker T. Washington National Monument

In order to give visual context to the report, many maps and figures were created to represent things like geologic formations, sampling points, and watershed contexts. Most of my job this summer has been standardizing these maps to a set format, as well as resolving data gaps. Supporting the large amount of data contained in the NRCA with comprehensive maps significantly increase the accessibility of the information, which is vital in a public arena such as the National Park Service.

Watershed Context of Booker T. Washington National Monument, in the Upper Roanoke River Watershed

Watershed Context of Booker T. Washington National Monument, in the Upper Roanoke River Watershed

GIS in Action: DC2RVA Field Trip

Post by Shaquille Christmas ’16

A couple weeks ago we visited the Richmond office of  Henningson, Durham, and Richardson, Inc (HDR), which is an architectural, engineering and consulting firm based in Omaha, Nebraska. UR alum and former SAL researcher extraordinaire Bridget Ward recently started working there as a GIS consultant in the transportation division. Bridget and her colleagues spoke to us about the DC to Richmond South East High Speed Rail project they are spearheading the planning for. They detailed the different ways in which HDR uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to support not only the DC to Richmond rail project, but also many of their other projects. These uses include preparing bids for contracts, performing analysis for various departments before and during construction, and especially communicating with the public. Below is a map they created showing the proposed rail route.

DC to Richmond (2)

One of the other interesting projects they talked about was an expansion of Route 460 that was delayed and ultimately drastically changed due to another contractor using inaccurate data to make decisions about impacts on wetland health. Since we have worked with wetland data on several projects over the summer it was cool to see how important accurate and detailed analysis is, and how detrimental careless errors can be!


Overall, our time spent at HDR was both invaluable and inspiring. Bridget and her team gave us several homework projects of cool tool and methods we should learn to prepare for working in a professional and team environment. It is my hope that other students are getting experiences such as this, and are receiving advice on how to best put their GIS skills to use as they consider potential career paths.


Streetview for Trails: Online Mapping with Terrain360

Post by Jared Goldbach Ehmer ’17

This week in the SAL, we continued working with Ryan Abrahamsen from Terrain360.  Last week we modified visual hierarchies on basemaps to make them more aesthetically pleasing.  To do this, we used the open source program called Mapbox. Mapbox required us to code in CSS, something none of us had ever actually done.  While most of us had coded in some regard in the past, it was either a new language to learn or a new experience altogether.  The basemaps we created and visually modified are used to house the trails and panoramas mapping them.


View from Hollwood Rapids on part of Terrain360’s online map of the James River. Found here:


Example of what a trail looks like in Terrain360. This is the Mud Creek Trail near Ancarrow’s Landing. Found here:

This week, we were given the opportunity to actually go out and take the pictures that will go on basemaps like the ones we created.  Using a Canon Rebel T3i with a wide-angle lens on a carbon fiber tripod with a 60 degree rotatable head provided by Terrain360, we were able to take wonderful and accurate panoramas.  While in the field, a series of 6 portrait-aspect pictures were taken that overlapped for about a third of their girth due to the wide-angle lens.  A GPS (Global Positioning System) was brought along with the camera to record where the photos were taken so the photos could then be linked to geographic coordinates.  Once back in the lab, these pictures could be stitched together to form a seamless panorama and placed on a map with the attached GPS coordinates.

Ryan walked us through a few camera basics to get us all up to speed with a basic level of camera aptitude.  Each panorama, or series of six shots, was unique and everything had to be adjusted for that particular location.  For each series of shots, we adjusted white balance, shutter speed, and focal point.  The white balance was adjusted for sunny, cloudy, shady, fluorescent, or incandescent lighting.  For most of our shots, we switched between the first three outdoor Kelvin levels.  Shutter speed was probably the main variable that was changed for each shot, for it may still be sunny out, but the level of light and exposure that we wanted to capture would have been different.  Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of seconds, our particular camera having a range of 30 seconds to one four-thousandth of a second.


There are three running trails on the campus of the University of Richmond that we photographed, the blue, the gold, and the red.  These trails can be seen in the map above.  In addition to the three running trails on campus, we also photographed the Gambles-Mill trail and the route you can take from it to the Huguenot Flatwater Park. The trail starts by running along the Country Club of Virginia golf course, eventually meeting River Road at the River Road Shopping Center.

We crossed River Road over to Huguenot Road and followed it down all the way across the Huguenot Memorial Bridge. Then we followed the cloverleaf exit and took the left onto Riverside Drive and then a quick right onto Southampton Road to arrive at Huguenot Flatwater Park.  Because each panorama needed to be about 20-30 feet apart and customized accordingly, even a simple walk around half the lake could take about two and a half hours to capture fully.

In the coming week, we will be both stitching the photos together to form the actual panoramas and placing them on the basemaps with the geographic coordinates. We have tried a few so far and are still working out kinks with the process. However, the “mess ups” are pretty cool to look at! To see our work and all the other places that Terrain360 has covered, go to

FullUR_0043 (2)

Attempt at stitching a panorama of the bridge on the Blue Trail over the lake

This project was interesting to us not only because it helps an organization doing cool work, but the skills we are learning are very applicable to other projects we might do. In terms of technological application, this project exhibits directly correlation to utilization in both Virtual Tours of Campus as well as a Virtual Tour Showing Students the way to Huguenot Flatwater Park.  The virtual tour of campus would be beneficial for prospective students and especially for students that are unable to travel to visit the campus in person.  Having a photographed route to Huguenot Flatwater could also encourage more students to make the trip down to Huguenot Flatwater Park.

Proposing a New National Natural Landmark: Bear Rocks, WV

Post by Natalie Somerville ’17

Hey friends! I’m Natalie and I have the good fortune of doing research with Todd Lookingbill during May and June of this summer. I am working on writing a proposal to the National Park Service to suggest adding a new landmark to their National Registry of Natural Landmarks.

picture 1

Now, if you are unfamiliar with the concept of National Natural Landmarks, let me explain a bit: they are not equivalent to the status of National Parks; I am not proposing a new National Park, sadly, although that would be pretty sweet. When the NPS gives a site the designation of “National Natural Landmark,” it means that the specific site is the best representative example of some geological or biological feature within a physiographic region of the United States.

Appalachain Plateau1

Map of Appalachian Plateaus prepared by the S4 Interns

The Appalachian Plateaus province of the U.S., which goes from Alabama to New York (see figure above for a map of the 7 sections within the Plateaus region; the site I am researching is located on the eastern edge of the Allegheny Plateau section in West Virginia), does not have any National Natural Landmarks designated within it to represent the geological feature of a plateau. …No plateau landmark within the Plateaus province..? Seems like a major gap. And here is where my project comes in! I am researching the geology and ecology of an area of land in West Virginia called Bear Rocks, in hopes of writing a report to the National Park Service saying why Bear Rocks should be considered as a new landmark to represent the plateau theme.

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Bear Rocks is already a Preserve, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, so there would be no extra protection given to the area even if my proposal is accepted and this site becomes a new landmark. I began research on this project with a few classmates in my SSIR (Protected Lands of the American West) this past semester, and our whole community took a weekend trip to the site. When you actually go to the Bear Rocks Preserve and run up the rocks to stand on the edge of the plateau, looking out over the vast horizon over to the Blue Ridge Mountains, it is clear how well this area of land demonstrates the features of a plateau. Plus, you get some pretty good views of the sunrise:

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I conducted a site visit to Bear Rocks in mid-May, a trip that included a meeting with the Land Conservation Practitioner for the West Virginia chapter of The Nature Conservancy. It was very helpful to talk to someone who has worked in and around this area of land for several years and knows what is important about it. Something it made me learn about research in general: I may do various internet searches and think I know information about a place, but talking to people who are familiar with the topic or subject of research will bring invaluable knowledge and clarity to the project. This research project is a team effort and cannot be completed without many different voices and areas of expertise.

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We are certainly moving forward in the information we know and making progress with writing the report! There is still a lot to be done, but I and the people involved with this project are expectant and hopeful that Bear Rocks will prove to be the best candidate for a National Natural Landmark designation, representing plateaus.

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GIS Analysis for Land Conservation Decision Making

Post by Marissa Parker ’16

Last week in the SAL, we took on our first full project as SAL interns, working for the Chesapeake Conservancy and the Capital Region Land Conservancy (CRLC). The Capitol Region Land Conservancy is a local non-profit land trust that aims to “conserve and protect the natural and historic land and water resources of Virginia’s Capital Region for the benefit of current and future generations” by facilitating the creation of land easements. These land easements permanently limit development to maintain the health of watersheds.

Counties Map For Blog2

These 7 counties and City of Richmond comprise the “Capital Region” the CRLC focuses on

To assist in their efforts to protect our community’s ecological health, we provided GIS services to the CRLC working in collaboration with the Chesapeake Conservancy. Our project for these clients was to create a database to evaluate various attributes of land parcels within eight counties (see map above) surrounding Richmond to help the CRLC make informed conservation decisions. Some attributes that we evaluated include location of each parcel within a floodplain, amount of natural land cover and wetland habitat, and the inclusion of historic places. Using ArcGIS software, we completed these analyses to create a single geodatabase containing extensive information on each land parcel in the eight counties.

We also completed a Viewshed analysis on local scenic byways—roads that run along the James River—which displayed areas that are and are not visible from the scenic byway, up to 5 miles away. This provided information on visibility of land parcels from scenic byways, which also will inform CRLC decisions. The picture below shows how some areas are visible from the byways while others are not, due to elevation and canopy cover.


The blue lines are scenic byways with views of the James River. The green areas are pixels identified as “visible” from the scenic byways. We included if a land parcel contained visible pixels in the data we sent the CRLC.

This project will help the CRLC in their creation of new conservation easements and provided us interns with first experience working as a team to complete a large project using GIS.



Welcome to Summer 2015 in the SAL

Hi All!

We are very excited to say it is going to be a very busy time in the SAL this summer! We always have a variety of interesting and innovative student research projects underway in our little corner of the International Center, but this year we’re packed to the brim! In addition to research projects being conduced by Natalie Somerville,Heather Courtenay and Kerry McGowan, we have four students taking part in our S4 Summer Intern program. These geographers will be building their skills through a variety of long term and short term projects designed to help our “clients” and partners over the summer. Stay tuned to the SAL blog as we bring you exciting updates on their work and progress!

Some of the things to look forward to:
-Database to help inform the creation of conservation easements for the Capitol Region Land Conservancy
-Uploading data to The GARDEN Project, a statewide collaboration between universities and VGIN
-Continued research on environmental impacts of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline
-Mapping of local trails with Terrain 360
-Updating and expanding the UR Campus Tree Map
-Proposal for a new National Natural Landmark at Bear Rocks Preserve (Natalie Somerville)
-Natural Resource Conditions Assessment of Booker T Washington National Monument (Heather Courtenay)
-Analysis of Solar Energy Development in the US and Mexico (Kerry McGowan)

For now enjoy one of the first tasks completed by our excellent interns, a map of the construction zones and associated road closures on the UR campus over the summer.

Summer Construction Map

Hope to see you back on the SAL Blog soon!
Taylor Holden

Summer in the SAL 2014

While not hard at work, we may take a break by completing some geography-themed jigsaw puzzles!

School may be out for the summer, but that doesn’t mean the SAL has been asleep! Instead, we have remained a busy, active place, with many students working on environmental and geospatial research projects. Here’s a quick update of what’s been happening (so far) this summer in the SAL.

  • Hunterr P. ’15, the second University of Richmond student to take advantage of the 3-2 program we have with the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University (he will start pursuing his Master of Forestry this fall but will receive his undergraduate degree from UR in the Spring of 2015), continues to work on a project with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). Using a healthy combination of ENVI and ArcGIS, Hunterr has been working to analyze and classify LANDSAT imagery covering the state of Virginia. His work will help the DCR create a statewide development vulnerability model—which natural areas in the state are most at risk of development?
  • Heather C. ’16 and Meghan M. of the College of William and Mary have been helping Dr. Todd Lookingbill prepare a Natural Resources Condition Assessment (NRCA) report for the Booker T. Washington National Monument, located near Roanoke. The NRCA reports, which have been or will be written for many of the units of the National Park Service, analyze the current condition of natural resources in those parks and try to elucidate long-term trends about their resources. In particular, the reports use lots of maps to communicate their results. Dr. Lookingbill has worked with students on prior NRCA reports, including one for Shenandoah National Park; while Booker T. Washington is a much smaller park, there is still a great amount of work involved in creating the report.
  • Will H. ’15 is working with Dr. Mary Finley-Brook on her continued efforts toward making the University of Richmond campus a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly place. Will has taken various trips to other universities and conferences to learn about their sustainability efforts and is researching how to implement some of those ideas here. He’s even making some maps to document his findings!

In addition to all this student research, we’ve had a few other notable events. SAL Director Kim Klinker just got back from leading her annual summer study abroad trip to Australia; she has created a storymap showing where the trip went, complete with student reflections about each day’s activities. The University’s Information Services department will be updating the SAL computers later in the summer, updating our software to ArcGIS 10.2 so that our students stay on the cutting edge of GIS technology. Kim and Andrew will be traveling to the Esri Education GIS Conference in San Diego and will present a talk about our campus mapping efforts; they will also get to attend a few days of the big Esri International User Conference, following the Education Conference. And of course, the “World Famous” Spatial Analysis Lab seeks to again dominate the Gottwald Games, a series of lighthearted games held by the science departments labs, to be held next week. Be on the lookout for our custom t-shirts, and start brushing up on your geography skills—we’re hosting a game this year too!

And finally, our current GIS Technician, Andrew Pericak, will be stepping down at the end of this month so that he can began his Master’s study in the fall. Andrew will also be attending the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, where he will pursue a Masters of Environmental Management. But the SAL will not be devoid of a Technician! The Department of Geography and the Environment has hired a new Technician, Chris Brown (as Kim says, No, not that Chris Brown,) who will be starting July 1. Chris brings lots of great technical and analytic GIS experience to the SAL, so hopefully the transition from one Technician to the other will go smoothly.

We here in the SAL are excited for all our exciting summer projects and activities. Yet sooner than we can imagine, the Class of 2018 will be arriving on campus. We look forward to greeting them in August and introducing them to the world of GIS!

Identify #6: Dr. Andy McGraw

Identify is a monthly series here on the SAL blog, focusing on students, faculty, and alumni of University of Richmond who have used GIS in exciting ways. Come by each month to learn more about the interdisciplinary nature of GIS here at UR.

The ArcGIS App in action

Over the past year, the Spatial Analysis Lab has explored new uses for mobile GIS, including using the ArcGIS App to collect and analyze spatial data. That’s why were especially excited when Associate Professor of Music and ethnomusicologist Dr. Andy McGraw approached us and asked for help with an assignment he was envisioning.

Dr. McGraw taught two ethnomusicology-related classes this year: “Cultural Musicology” and “Soundscapes.” For these classes, Dr. McGraw wanted to elucidate “the relationship of sounds to [the City of Richmond’s] geography in a very specific way.” To achieve this goal, he instructed his students to leave the campus of University of Richmond and find sound and music throughout the greater Richmond area. Yet Dr. McGraw needed a good way for his students to record their findings: after all, sounds are inherently tied to a place, so knowing exactly where the students heard these sounds could contribute toward constructing this aural landscape of Richmond.

As a solution, we recommended having students use the ArcGIS App to collect data points while in the field. Dr. McGraw said he had heard of using GIS-based techniques to collect sound data before, but had never used GIS and did not know all that was possible—we were glad to introduce the technology to him!

To achieve his goal, we first used ArcGIS Online to create a blank map and then added an editable feature service hosted on our web server. The feature service not only allowed students to record their exact location on the map but also to input data related to that location, such as the place’s name, the type of sound present, or the decibel reading (a measure of “loudness.”) We also gave students the option to upload photos, videos, or sound files.

The students then journeyed into Richmond and found instances of sound and music. While there, they launched the App on their GPS-enabled smartphones and collected information about that place and the sound they were hearing. Moreover, as students added new points to the map, those points automatically showed up on everybody else’s devices. In short, the classes used live, crowdsourcing techniques based in GIS.

While both classes successfully and easily recorded locations of sound around Richmond, this project is far from over. Prior to undertaking any serious analysis, says Dr. McGraw, at least three years’ worth of classes will explore Richmond and collect sound and music data; these classes will build upon and add to the data collected this year. Dr. McGraw wants to allow so much time for data acquisition, he says, because it’s hard as of yet to see any specific trends, despite the hundreds of points collected by this year’s students—there still isn’t enough data.

To further increase the number of sound and music locations, Dr. McGraw hopes to teach other individuals outside of his own classes how to collect points with the mobile app: students in other classes at UR, citizens living and working in Richmond, and hopefully even students at Virginia Commonwealth University. Truly, Dr. McGraw is undertaking a community project; our GIS infrastructure is ready to support a variety of users.

Finally, once Dr. McGraw and his students can start identifying trends, they hope to display the fully interactive maps on touch-screen video monitors in Booker Hall of Music on the UR campus. The Spatial Analysis Lab looks forward to helping Dr. McGraw over the next few years as he works on this project, and we will always be looking for ways to improve and supplement the sound maps so as to reveal as many insights as possible!

Identify #5: Dr. Elizabeth Baughan

Identify is a monthly series here on the SAL blog, focusing on students, faculty, and alumni of University of Richmond who have used GIS in exciting ways. Come by each month to learn more about the interdisciplinary nature of GIS here at UR.

Imperial fora of Ancient Rome

An example of GIS in archaeology: the imperial fora of Rome. Click the image to access an interactive web map!

In the SAL, we like to emphasize how knowledge of GIS can benefit virtually every academic field. Having skill in GIS isn’t “only” for geography or environmental science; it can be applied to a wide range of other natural, physical, and social sciences too. One great example of this cross-disciplinary application of GIS is our partnership with Associate Professor of Classics and Archaeology Dr. Elizabeth Baughan. GIS, of course, is a perfect way to document the results of archaeological digs, and Dr. Baughan has thus made use of GIS both in class and in the field.

Dr. Baughan frequently brings her Introduction to Archaeology course to the SAL, to familiarize her students with GIS and to show them its power in displaying archaeological data. This class day is “usually a highlight of the semester,” she says, “and it is always interesting to see how many of [the students] have been [to the SAL] for other, very different classes. GIS helps students see unexpected connections across disciplines.” For those students who haven’t yet taken a formal GIS class, many decide to enroll and consequently apply their GIS skills to their own archaeological research. A great example of this process involves this map produced by Samantha Frandsen ’13, a student of Dr. Baughan, showing the locations of the imperial fora of Ancient Rome. You can read more about Frandsen’s work at this link.

Dr. Baughan also uses GIS while performing archaeological surveys. In particular, Dr. Baughan conducts research in Turkey; she and her colleagues meticulously document their finds and add those data to a GIS for future analysis. For archaeology, she says, GIS has “a wide range of uses and benefits, from the correlation of survey find locations with topographic data and subsurface features …, to understanding regional site distribution in the context of environmental conditions.”

But recently, Dr. Baughan ran into an issue: while the data collected for a recent project would show up in our ArcGIS software, its location would not appear correctly relative to other features on the ground—something was wrong with the data. Dr. Baughan came to the SAL and asked for our assistance; after looking at the data, we discovered an amusing, coincidental reason for the error.

As a necessary first step when working with GIS, a map projection had already been assigned to the data. A projection is a way to transform the spherical surface of the Earth into a flat, two-dimensional plane. In particular, the data had correctly been given a UTM projection for zone 35S, the zone describing the western part of Turkey in which lies one of the survey sites. Nonetheless, the data would not show up.

We noticed, however, that ArcGIS uses a slightly different naming structure for its UTM zones. Rather than adopting the Military Grid Reference System format of using the letters C through X to describe latitudes of north and south in a UTM grid, ArcGIS only uses longitudinal bands, splitting the UTM zones latitudinally just once at the equator. This method results in merely a northern and a southern zone, respectively labeled N and S, for each zone number. Thus, west Turkey rests in zone 35N in ArcMap—zone 35S is in the southern hemisphere instead!

Once we fixed this error, the data aligned well. Dr. Baughan will now be able to perform analyses on the data and further develop her academic research. The SAL was glad to help Dr. Baughan “repair” the data—we know that GIS can be confusing, even for people with experience with the tool, and that often the best results come from team efforts. We look forward to seeing how she will use GIS to analyze the data and to helping her work with any geospatial information she collects on future digs!

Bonus! Listen to Dr. Baughan discuss her research as well as her new book, Couched in Death: Klinai and Identity in Anatolia and Beyond, in the most recent Podcast@Boatwright.