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National Park Service Vegetation Mapping Inventory Program: Great Smoky Mountains National Park vegetation mapping project

July 1, 2021

The National Park Service (NPS) Vegetation Mapping Inventory (VMI) Program is an effort to classify, describe, and map existing vegetation communities in national park units throughout the United States. The NPS VMI Program is managed by the NPS Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Inventory and Monitoring Program and provides baseline vegetation information to natural resource managers, researchers, and ecologists. The U.S. Geological Survey Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, NatureServe, and NPS Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM, also referred to as the “Park”) have completed vegetation classification and mapping of GRSM, including the Foothills Parkway, for the NPS VMI Program.

Mappers, ecologists, and botanists collaborated to affirm vegetation types of GRSM and to determine how best to map the vegetation types by using aerial imagery. A vegetation classification developed in 2003 by NatureServe and the NPS served as a foundation to further classify and map the vegetation types of the Park. Data from an additional 10 vegetation plots supported vegetation types either rare or not documented in the 2003 classification. Data from 203 verification sites were collected to test the field key to vegetation types and the application of vegetation types to a sample set of map polygons. Furthermore, data from 972 accuracy assessment (AA) sites were collected (of which 966 were used to test accuracy of the vegetation map layer). This GRSM vegetation mapping project identified 112 vegetation types consisting of 105 association types in the U.S. National Vegetation Classification (USNVC), 2 “park-special” types, 1 “map-special” type, and 4 cultural types in the USNVC.

To map the vegetation and land cover of GRSM, 52 map classes were developed. Of these 52 map classes, 46 represent natural (including ruderal) vegetation types, most of which types are recognized in the USNVC. For the remaining 6 of the 52 map classes, 4 represent USNVC cultural types for agricultural and developed areas, and 2 represent non-USNVC types for nonvegetated open water and nonvegetated rock. Features were interpreted from viewing four-band digital aerial imagery using digital onscreen three-dimensional stereoscopic workflow systems in geographic information systems; digital aerial imagery was collected during September 23–October 30, 2015. The interpreted data were digitally and spatially referenced, thus making the spatial-database layers usable in a geographic information system. Polygon units were mapped to either a 0.5- or 0.25- hectare (ha) minimum mapping unit, depending on vegetation type.

A geodatabase containing several feature-class layers and tables provides the locations and data of USNVC vegetation types (vegetation map layer), vegetation plots, verification sites, AA sites, project boundary extent, and aerial image centers and flight lines.

Covering 210,875 ha, the feature-class layer and related tables for the vegetation map layer provide 34,084 polygons of detailed attribute data when special modifiers are not considered (average polygon size of 6.2 ha) and 36,589 polygons of detailed attribute data when special modifiers are considered (average polygon size of 5.8 ha). Each map polygon is assigned a map-class code and name and, when applicable, are linked to USNVC classification tables within the geodatabase. The vegetation map extent includes the administrative boundary for GRSM and the Foothills Parkway.

A summary report, generated from the vegetation map layer, concludes that the 46 map classes representing natural (including ruderal) vegetation types apply to 99.2% of polygons (33,797 polygons; average size of 6.2 ha) and cover 98.6% of the Park (207,971.4 ha). Further broken down, map classes representing natural vegetation types indicate that the Park is 97.7% forest and woodland (205,882.5 ha), 0.6% shrubland (1,174.6 ha), and 0.4% herbaceous (914.3 ha). Map classes representing cultural vegetation types apply to 0.8% of polygons (259 polygons; average size of 4.9 ha) and cover 0.6% of the Park (1,277.4 ha). Map classes representing nonvegetation open and flowing water and unvegetated rock apply to 0.08% of polygons (28 polygons; average size of 58.1 ha) and cover 0.8% of the Park (1,625.9 ha).

A thematic AA study was completed of map classes representing the natural (including ruderal) vegetation types of the Park. Initial AA results were discussed with NPS staff from the Park. Following input from NPS staff on how to handle map classes that fell below accuracy standards, adjustments were made to the vegetation map layer. Final results indicate an overall accuracy of 80.64% (kappa index of 79.96% for chance agreements) based on data from 966 of the 972 AA sites. Most individual map-class themes exceed the NPS VMI Program standard of 80% with a 90% confidence interval.

The GRSM vegetation mapping project delivers many geospatial and vegetation data products, including an in-depth project report discussing methods and results, which includes map classification and map-class descriptions. This suite of products also includes descriptions and a field key to vegetation types; a database of vegetation plots, verification sites, and AA sites; digital images of field sites; field data sheets; digital aerial imagery; hardcopy and digital maps; a geodatabase of vegetation and land cover (map layer), field sites (vegetation plots, verification sites, and AA sites), aerial imagery index, project boundary, and metadata; and a contingency table listing AA results. Geospatial products are projected in the Universal Transverse Mercator, Zone 17 North, by using the North American Datum of 1983. Information on the NPS VMI Program and completed mapping projects are on the internet at

Publication Year 2021
Title National Park Service Vegetation Mapping Inventory Program: Great Smoky Mountains National Park vegetation mapping project
DOI 10.36967/nrr-2286888
Authors Kevin D. Hop, Andrew C. Strassman, Stephanie Sattler, Rickie White, Milo Pyne, Tom Govus, Jennifer Dieck
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Series Title Natural Resource Report
Series Number 2021/2285
Index ID 70223240
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center