The goal for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is preventing natural disasters like the Dust Bowl from happening again.
“At the highest level, NRCS protects the soil,” said Brady Allred, rangeland ecologist at the University of Montana.
Allred works with the USDA NRCS to spatially target and evaluate Farm Bill conservation programs.
In order to do that, NRCS needs to help the private landowner with funds to ensure sustainable and productive practices.
“The two mechanisms for technical assistance the NRCS has is to provide knowledge and expertise to manage lands sustainably through the Farm Bill,” Allred said.
Rangelands make up a large percentage of land in the lower 48 states.
“The question comes up, ‘How do we monitor these landscapes and conservation efforts that are part of the rangeland to see if we are doing a good job and/or we need to adjust our management?’” he said.
Rangeland sampling by individuals is phenomenal at identifying and sampling plants, and has been doing this since its inception.
The problem is it does not scale – there are not enough people out there.
“To sample all rangelands across the globe, we can’t do it all,” Allred said.
The approach to sample rangelands was never meant to scale up, but it was meant to provide local data for local decisions.
“If we are dealing with such large geography, how do we do it? We use modern remote sensing – there are so many features out there we can do,” he said.
The amount of sampling that can be done on a large scale with remote sensing is unprecedented.
It does take advantage of some satellite remote sensing.
“This concept was meant to scale, monitor and measure things across broad geographies,” Allred said.
In the early 1970s, the first Landsat satellite launched. “In 1976, a remote rangeland analysis system laid out how we use satellite sensing to monitor rangeland,” he said.
Over the years, a lot of field-level data has been collected and there is a lot of data publically available – earth observation data. It can be analyzed.
“Cloud computing has now caught up to our dreams to taking all this data and doing something with it,” he said. “Years ago, it was a nightmare. We have passed that hurdle and these plots are now standardized.”
They use very similar methodology and allow plots to be combined.
“We did this big analysis to measure rangeland across the U.S.,” he said.
Allred designed an app that, for the first time, allows anyone to see what rangelands look like across the western U.S.
The Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) is a free Internet app that provides the tools to scan the landscape and view changes to annual forbs and grasses, perennial forbs and grasses, shrubs, trees and bare ground.
“RAP is an innovative online mapping tool that can be used by anyone – no fees or registration required,” Allred said. “This free tool provides quick snapshots of rangeland vegetation. It allows users to easily compare trends in rangeland resources through time at a ranch, county, or watershed scale. “
In addition, RAP helps people plan conservation and management actions that improve grazing lands, bolster valuable water and soil resources, and prevent weeds and wildfire.
From 1984 to 2019, NRCS took 58,000 plots and did ground level data for the plots. They combined it with surface reflectance information (the amount of light reflected by the surface of the earth) from Landsat missions throughout the years.
Now, they could crunch the enormous data down to a baseball diamond area, about 30 meters.
“We can take that data and combine it with cover information for that specific plot at that specific time,” he said. “We use the Google platform and Google Earth information with the app to build a predictive model.”
Once the model is made (reflectance on x-axis and vegetative cover on the y-axis), anyone can take surface reflectance measurements across a broad geography and one can predict what the vegetative cover is for annuals, perennials, forbes, grasses, and other groups.
The app can provide clues to the effects of grazing and rangeland health, the percentage of different types of vegetation and precipitation for each year.
“This gives us the ability to monitor things through time. You can go back and take surface reflectance across a time span and geography and you can estimate vegetative cover for each one of the functional groups,” he said.
Allred has another app in the works.
“We will release shortly a different rangeland production in pounds per acre of herbaceous forage for perennial functional groups and annual functional groups,” he said.
That would give an annual estimate of rangeland production available in the summer.
“It is a continuous 16-day estimate of rangeland production. But we wonder how this data be can be used in everyday rangeland monitoring,” Allred said. “The data can help fill in the gaps between local data and local knowledge by providing context, prioritizing our conservation at multiple levels, and filling in the gaps through space and time.”
The RAP website said by “pairing the maps and time-series charts produced by RAP with local on-the-ground knowledge, ranchers and land managers can quickly see outcomes of past land management actions to help inform future decisions.”
This new technology helps NRCS meet its goals for partnering with private landowners to conserve rangelands.
Since 2010, NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife has helped over 2,000 ranchers restore and protect more than 7.5 million acres of grazing lands, according to the website.
For more information, see https://rangelands.app.