veg map sebastopol

A new map depicting the vegetation, habitat and topography of Sonoma County is now available at a level of detail never before seen, thanks to a hefty grant from NASA and the dedication of multiple stakeholders in the county.

The Sonoma County Vegetation Mapping and LiDAR Program, or more succinctly, the Veg Map, “is a 5-year program to map Sonoma County’s topography, physical and biotic features and diverse plant communities and habitats,” according to its website. LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is a remote sensing method used to examine the surface of the earth. An aircraft flew over the county, crisscrossing the land while shooting lasers at the surface below, which were then reflected back up to the plane for the purpose of gathering data.

According to a statement from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, the Veg Map provides a fine-scale representation of all the natural vegetation in Sonoma County. It represents 83 different vegetation communities and land cover types, with vegetation cover identified for areas 400 square feet to one acre in size.

The map was created using a combination of fieldwork, aerial photo interpretation and computer-based modeling and machine learning. It is based on a vegetation key developed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) for the Sonoma Veg Map Program. Prior to this map, the best available maps for Sonoma County only represented 60 vegetation communities with areas mapped to two and a half acre polygons.

“Before we had this map we didn’t have as high a resolution of data to identify specific plants or plant communities,” said Amy Ricard of the open space district. “It includes natives and non-natives. Some of them are endangered species themselves. Some we’d want to prioritize because native plant communities provide food and shelter for specific wildlife. It allows us to hone in on areas of the county where specific plant communities exist and, based on their conservation needs, prioritize their conservation.”

While funding came from many sources, the primary source was a $1 million grant from NASA, in coordination with an international carbon-monitoring program at the University of Maryland.  Karen Gaffney, Conservation Planning Manager for the open space district says it was Sonoma County’s uniqueness that helped get the NASA grant that paid for most of the LiDAR work. 

“They were interested in looking at carbon sequestration,” Gaffney said. “This is the first time they’ve done this at a county level, normally they operate at the level of something like the Amazon. They were interested in Sonoma County, partly because we have a progressive community as far as investing in agricultural restoration and open space.”

Gaffney says the idea is to use the data and maps for updating the open space district’s strategic plan, known as the Vital Lands Initiative. “To have the best available information for that plan, we needed the best data to support that process,” she said. “Our (previous) vegetation map for the county was outdated and imprecise.”

The map has many uses, according to Gaffney, from stream and riparian corridor mapping and habitat protection, to use by large landowners and the agricultural community to monitor plantings, preserve native habitats and plan land use. But she also hopes that all those who live in the county will use it to appreciate the incredible natural diversity of Sonoma County.  

“We are one of most biologically diverse places in California,” Gaffney said. “We have some things that occur nowhere else in the world. So, this is not just a great picture of properties and watersheds, but the county as a whole where there are these interesting plant communities.  It has a lot of different applications, depending on people’s interest.”

The Veg Map is a joint program of the open space district and the Sonoma County Water Agency and contributing partners include the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the United States Geological Survey, the Sonoma County Information Systems Department, the Sonoma County Transportation and Public Works Department, the Nature Conservancy, the City of Petaluma, NASA and the University of Maryland.

More information, including free public access to all the maps and an informational video, can be found at sonomavegmap.org

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