Colorado State Researcher Wins Society of Conservation Biology Distinguished Service Award for Assembling Database of State Land Use

A Colorado State University researcher has developed an online system that identifies where humans and nature interact and sometimes clash and has made it available to developers, environmentalists and others.

Tom Hobbs, a senior scientist in Colorado State University’s Natural Resources Research Laboratory and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, led a team that constructed a database and analytical tools to make land-use decisions affecting Colorado’s animals, plants and natural communities.

The result offers planners, citizens and organizations easy access via the Web to biological, geopolitical and demographic data needed to understand potential impacts of land-use change on wildlife and natural communities.

The Colorado Natural Diversity Information Source, or NDIS, now is available for use by the public on the Internet at .

In recognition of this and other work, Hobbs has won the 1999 Distinguished Service Award for a researcher in government given by the Society for Conservation Biology. His work on NDIS began in 1995, when he completed a study of ecosystem effects of elk grazing in Western Colorado.

"We were looking at the important problems, and it became very clear that the major agent of change was rapid growth and development," he said. "To solve environmental problems, that’s where you needed to work."

Hobbs, a DOW employee since 1979, was able to work at Colorado State through the Natural Resources Ecology Laboratory, an interdisciplinary unit within the College of Natural Resources that brings together university, state and federal researchers and graduate students to examine problems related to the environment. While admitting doubts about his skills in the field of geographic information systems, Hobbs assembled "a good team," including partners from DOW, Colorado State and the Colorado Natural Heritage Program. Financial support was provided by Great Outdoors Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

"It has been really satisfying," he said. "You don’t have to be an ecologist to realize the crucial importance of development as a source of landscape change in Colorado."

Hobbs and colleagues started pilot projects in Larimer and Summit counties, outlining the proposed information system and then setting up a working group of those affected by development –landowners, developers, environmentalists and planners.

"That group collaborated to design what this system looks like," said Hobbs. It worked so well, in fact, that it’s being used for the whole state, with fine-scale data expected to be ready in two to three years. The surprise for Hobbs came from the original collaboration, when both developers and environmental advocates turned out to want exactly the same thing.

"The developers were more willing to accommodate concerns about wildlife if they knew about those concerns up front," he said. "The environmental advocates wanted a tool that would help them identify and inform critical issues about wildlife and natural communities.

"Both groups said being informed will help them do a better job."

Using data from the DOW, Colorado Natural Heritage Program, local government and other sources, Hobbs and his teammates created NDIS online to show land ownership, plant communities, rare plant and animal species, habitat maps of some 400 species of wildlife (including ecologically important species such as deer, elk and bear) and biophysical features of the state. Separate data outline wildlife needs, their economic value, population growth and guides to rare plants and river habitats.

Interested parties using standard Internet browsers can locate an area of interest anywhere in the state and find out about the wildlife, plants, and natural communities there, potential impacts of development and the value of wildlife habitat relative to the area’s surroundings. In some cases, maps and other information are available. In the near future, professionals and consultants with technical needs will be able to download data directly.

Hobbs and his team continue to refine data "to allow users to get a better sense of what’s coming, show future projections and overlay proposed land use with outlines of environmental sensitivity." NDIS has the potential to be adapted for use in other states, he said.

The Society for Conservation Biology award recognizes ecologists who have made substantial contributions to the field. Hobbs holds a doctorate in wildlife biology from Colorado State.