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Forestry Student’s Senior Project Applies New Technology to Old Data

April 09, 2007
John Dingman’s three-ring binder for his senior honors project overflows with data ranging from topographic maps to digital elevation models to tree cores. Dingman, a senior forestry major at CNR, spent the summer of 2006 trekking through Mount Diablo State Park to collect firsthand data for his project on vegetation type mapping using GIS.

John Dingman
Although hiking from sunup to sundown through ticks and scrub was often exhausting, Dingman talks about his research with a familiarity and enthusiasm that stems from a sense of personal accomplishment. He says, “I was surprised by how much I really enjoyed working on this project. I appreciated the time I spent outside collecting the data and analyzing the data to develop my own algorithms to reduce GIS spatial error.”His project is part of a unique CNR program called Sponsored Projects for Undergraduate Research, or SPUR Dingman says SPUR was a positive experience because, “it allowed me as an undergraduate to design a research project, and apply my knowledge to study vegetation change.” Through SPUR, Dingman worked with Professor Maggi Kelly of the Kelly Research and Outreach Lab to develop his plan and research methods.

The project’s goal is to compare a vegetation survey of plots in and around Mount Diablo conducted by the US Forest Service in the 1930s to a modern survey of the same plots and determine what vegetation changes, if any, have occurred. Although it may seem like a simple idea, the project was full of challenges that required innovative methods and modern technology. For example, the maps used by the original survey in the 1930s were drawn in 1896, making it difficult to locate the plots today.

To locate these needles-in-the-haystack of Mount Diablo, Dingman used GIS, or geographic information system technology, to find the aspect, or direction the land is facing, and steepness of the slope of the land. He then arranged this data into digital elevation model maps and compared the topography of the old maps to these digital elevation model maps. He was able to use algorithms and the process of elimination to determine the location of the plots. When he conducted vegetation surveys, he found that most of the vegetation is relatively young- around thirty years old- due to stand replacement. The implications of his research mainly impact the park’s forestry service and fire control in the area.

Dingman continues to collect research in the Mount Diablo area and hopes to expand into the Sierras this summer. He says, “This project has provided me with additional skills needed to continue my research in graduate school next year, hopefully at Berkeley.”

- Stephanie Ludwig