US Department of Transportation

FHWA PlanWorks: Better Planning, Better Projects

IEFStep 2 : Characterize Resource Status and Integrate Natural Environment Plans

Integrated Ecological Framework Step

Purpose & Outcome


Develop an overall conservation strategy that integrates restoration and conservation priorities, data, and plans.

  • Group understanding of historic/long-term trends, priorities, and concerns related to aquatic and terrestrial resources, species, and habitats in the region.
  • Existing data and plans compiled into a refined map that identify areas for conservation and restoration action.
  • Descriptions of areas of significant ecological importance to protect watershed and ecosystem health, identifying the most suitable areas for restoration and preservation.
  • Map of combined conservation/preservation and restoration areas used as the basis for a Regional Ecosystem Framework (REF) and cumulative effects analysis.
  • Identification of gaps in data or plans that may need to be addressed separately and identifying modeling or assumptions to be used to address these gaps.
  • Commitments and schedule for delivery of data.
  • Modeling to fill data gaps.


TIP: To access more information on sub-steps, please visit the complete Guide to the Integrated Ecological Framework.

  1. Identify the spatial data needed to create an understanding of current (baseline) conditions that are a by-product of past actions and to understand potential effects from future actions.
  2. Prioritize the specific list of ecological resources and issues that should be further addressed in the REF or other assessment and planning.
  3. Develop the necessary agreements with agencies and NGOs to provide plans and data that agencies use in their own decision-making processes.Agreements should allow data to be used to avoid, minimize, and advance mitigation, especially for CWA Section 404 and ESA Section 7.
  4. Identify data gaps and how they will be addressed in the combined conservation/restoration plan.Reach consensus on an efficient process for filling any remaining gaps.
  5. Produce geospatial overlays of data, plans and supporting priorities, to guide the development of an overall conservation strategy for the planning region that identifies conservation priorities and opportunities, and evaluates stressors and opportunities for mitigation and restoration.
  6. Convene a team of stakeholders to review the geospatial overlay and associated goals/priorities, and identify actions to support them.
  7. Record methods, concurrence and rationales of this step based on stakeholder input (e.g., how the identified areas address the conservation/preservation, or restoration needs and goals identified for the area).
  8. Distribute the combined map of conservation and restoration priorities to stakeholders for review and adoption.

Technical Questions

  • What are the quantitative retention goals for each resource to ensure viability or preservation of an agreed upon portion of the priority resources?
  • What is the conservation status of identified priority species and habitats?
  • How accurate is information about where priority species and habitats (including wetlands) occur or could occur?
  • Are the viability needs of priority species and habitats (i.e., minimum habitat size required for particular species) understood?
  • What is the condition of the existing data (e.g., completeness, age, resolution)?
  • What expertise and resources are needed to fill any identified data gaps?
  • Are conservation priorities and actions represented accurately in the REF, including ones that are not spatially explicit?
  • Is there disagreement in the conservation priority areas and goals identified by different conservation plans developed in the planning region? How will this be resolved?
  • What regulated resources are most common in the area, and are most likely to be impacted or are the most sensitive to disturbance?
  • What ecosystem services of interest are most likely to be affected by transportation projects?
  • Do mitigation banks, habitat conservation banks or other markets exist for ecosystem services likely to be affected?
  • What landscape scale measurements exist, if any, for quantifying ecosystem services and impacts?
  • What are the limiting factors associated with TMDLs and 303(d)-listed streams?


Federal Lands/Federally Managed Lands and Associated Plans

  • Department of Defense, Integrated Natural Resource Management Plans.
  • Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management
  • Department of Interior, National Park Service
  • Department of Interior, USFWS
  • Department of Agriculture, Forest Service
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and USFWS recovery plans
  • US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and NOAA - Special Area Management Plans (SAMPs)

State/Regional Agency Plans

  • Statewide Long Range Transportation Plans (LRTPs) and any other state or regional transportation plan that includes proposed transportation projects (corridor analyses, regional transportation profiles, transportation improvement plans, etc.)
  • State Wildlife Action Plans (SWAPs) (, or other conservation/land use plans that are mapped and have 'actionable' priorities. Some plans may have buy-in across the state and therefore offer a 'pre-endorsed' plan.
  • Wetland Conservation Plans
  • State lands and reserve plans
  • State game and trust species management plans, including wildlife crossings
  • State natural heritage or state natural area plans (
  • State comprehensive outdoor recreation plan
  • State 'open space' plans

Local Agency Plans

  • Local land use plans/Comprehensive Plans, Green Infrastructure Plans (The Conservation Fund), GreenPrint (The Trust for Public Land) plans, etc.
  • Land Use/Land Cover and impervious cover (
  • Local watershed restoration plans completed by state water quality agencies or local watershed organizations. These can include municipal water supply watershed plans.

NGO Conservation and Restoration Plans

  • The Audubon Society's Important Bird Areas plans, joint venture waterfowl or waterbed plans, or other various single resource focused, scientifically-derived priority plans (Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited)
  • The Nature Conservancy's Eco-Regional Conservation Plans, covering all states in the US. These may be especially useful when SWAPs lack mapped, actionable priorities. (
  • Other Potential Conservation Areas that are widely adopted/utilized
  • Local/regional land trust plans developed with systematic methods

Other Data

  • Protected area data (USGS PADUS, CBI,
  • EPA's Reach Address Database, 303(d) Listings , discharge of waste waters via permit compliance system, watershed boundary data
  • Data sets created by the state, counties, and other local organizations. For example, Maryland and Florida have greenways/green infrastructure/green print initiatives that identify large, contiguous blocks of ecological significant natural areas and link them with natural corridors to create an interconnected network of natural resource lands across the state.
  • National Conservation Easement Database (
  • Natural Heritage Program species locations (
  • Predictive species modeling data, including inductive species distribution models being developed by some state Natural Heritage Programs, located in universities or state resource agencies.
  • Ecological Systems or Natural Communities
  • National Hydrography Dataset (USGS)
  • Soils (USGS), Hydric Soils data (NRCS), & Existing NRCS Rapid Watershed Assessments, 20-40 pp characterization of watersheds based on geology, soils, land uses, and socio-economic data
  • Wetland/Watershed - NWI, local watershed plans by state or local organizations or municipal water supply watershed plans, e.g., Wetlands of Special State Concern
  • Impaired (303(d)-listed) streams (EPA, state agencies)
  • Impervious surfaces (state or local government)
  • Floodplain (100-year) Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • Pollution point sources (state government)

Other Useful National Data Portals

  • Geo-Spatial One Stop. Inter/National geo-spatial data clearinghouse and computer network of data servers/portals. Available geographic data and metadata posted, shared, and coordinated with the National Spatial Data Infrastructure and Federal Geographic Data Committee. Individual web links for each national, state, regional, and local data portal/server that is part of the overall inter/national data clearinghouse .
  • OpenGIS - Open Geospatial Consortium is an international industry consortium of more than 300 companies, government agencies and universities participating in a consensus process to develop publicly available interface specifications. OpenGIS®Specifications support interoperable solutions. The specifications empower technology developers to make complex spatial information and services accessible and useful with all kinds of applications. Summaries available at:
  • National States Geographic Information Council is an organization committed to efficient and effective government through prudent adoption of geospatial information technologies. State summaries and contact person for each state available at:

Case Study Examples

Click on the arrows below for detailed information on each case
  • Location: California

    Description: This work plan outlines a method to create a baseline map of essential connectivity areas, based on integrity or "naturalness" of land features. This analysis should help reassure users who are skeptical of using ecological integrity as the resistance layer by selecting a cost threshold that is likely to accommodate the needs of diverse focal species. The plan will also describe the biological value of each connectivity corridor, and calculate biological value of each area, classify then as essential or important, by criteria such as size, ecological integrity (not defined), fraction of areas in protected status, and integral index of connectivity (from graph theory).

  • Location: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming

    Description: This report documents a scientific assessment of the conservation needs of the Central Shortgrass Prairie ecoregion. A type of major habitat seldom protected, it was determined that approximately 44% of the ecoregion was in need of conservation, resulting in the development of conservation goals and quantitative objectives. Data was collected from many different sources such as Natural Heritage Programs, local and state governments.

  • Location: Arizona, Baja California Norte, California, Chihuahua, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Sonora, Texas, Utah, Wyoming

    Description: Multiple stakeholders collaborated on creating a geodatabase for six ecoregions, including the Apache Highlands, Arizona-New Mexico Mountains, Colorado Plateau, Mojave Desert, Sonoran Desert, and Southern Rocky Mountains so as to better facilitate conservation across jurisdictional and political boundaries.

  • Location: Alaska

    Description: This article describes steps taken for the creation of a "toolbox" to help assess the effects of existing and proposed roads on habitat quality and connectivity, using GIS as the main tool, in order to better inform future transportation decisions. The "toolset" is comprised of stakeholders & concerned groups, relevant literature (including local and traditional knowledge) and GIS data sets & methods useful to determining impacts & connectivity. The report identifies 150 individuals (resource managers, biologists, ecologists, GIS experts, members of the public, representatives from Native groups, federal and state agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)) concerned about the effects of roads on habitat quality and connectivity who are willing to be contacted and to collaborate in transportation planning issues in Alaska.

  • Location: , Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, Texas, Virginia, Washington

    Description: Paper discusses how GIS can help assess and model cumulative impacts. Case studies deal with data management, interagency cooperation & outreach, spatial analysis & modeling, and re-engineering DOT business practices through the use of GIS.

  • Location: Oregon

    Description: CETAS is a multi-agency (including Federal & State transportation, natural resource, cultural resource, and land-use planning agencies) committee that works to bring all partners together to focus on communication, participation & early involvement in Environmental Assessments & Environmental Impact Statements. The goal of CETAS is to provide input at major decision making points in projects, help Oregon DOT to develop & implement statewide environmental initiatives, etc, to reach environmentally informed decisions from the beginning stages of the project. CETAS also includes guidance assisting project teams to prepare proper data quality for effective analysis & decision support. GIS is a large component, with some of the info web-based, in order to ensure up to date & easily accessible information to project teams regarding environmental sensitive areas/areas of interest, etc (i.e. the Salmon Resources and Sensitive Area Mapping project).

  • Location: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin, Multi-State

    Description: Matrix showing dozens of case studies from all over the United States that demonstrate effective practices in long-range and corridor planning, as well as linking planning and NEPA. Columns show which studies incorporate one or more of the following areas: Inter-agency coordination & consultation, mitigation, spatial data & tools, GIS, and process guidelines or changes.

  • Location: California

    Description: Use of repeatable, scientific approach for selecting mitigation sites and establishing conservation goals: An example of providing compensation prior to impacts is the Regional Advance Mitigation Planning (RAMP) effort in California (Thorne et al 2009). This innovative effort estimated potential future impacts to resources by developing a "footprint" of future projects, using that to identify resources that may be impacted, and then developing a method for identifying sites that could offset these particular impacts in a way that contributes to regional and statewide conservation priorities. This framework was tested in a subregion of the Central Valley near Sacramento, California. Once a list of the species and habitat types that would potentially be impacted in the region was identified, the locations of these species and habitats were mapped across the region and overlaid with many other data layers including ownership, land cover, species habitat, minimum size of habitat, priority conservation areas, etc. to evaluate each parcel's contribution to restoring potentially impacted ecological components. MARXAN was used to evaluate each parcel and identify the ones with the most potential for high quality compensatory mitigation. Some of the resources that were identified for compensatory mitigation included vernal pool complexes, Giant Garter Snakes, and Burrowing Owls. Although this type of "systematic planning of ecological offsets" has been demonstrated in other publications (Kiesecker et al. 2009), this project illustrated an effective process that "integrated the mitigation needs of more than one infrastructure agency."

  • Location: Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming

    Description: (from Executive summary): The Southern Rocky Mountain (SRM) region has one of the fastest growing human populations in the country, and also has numerous species/ecosystems of concern including 184 endemic species, 100 G1-G2 species, & 23 federally threatened or endangered. The ecological assessment conducted was a science-based (both fine & coarse scale) approach to design a portfolio of conservation areas.

Tools & Methods

Click on the arrows below for detailed information on each tool or method.

  • Description: BASINS is designed to be used by regional, state, and local agencies to perform watershed- and water-quality-based studies and as a system for supporting the development of total maximum daily loads (TMDLs). Version 3.1 is compatible with ArcView 3.1, 3.2, or 3.3. It is not compatible with the current ArcGIS suite of applications. Version 4.0 contains an installation program for use in an open source GIS program (MapWindow).


  • Description: CoastRanger MS has been designed to explain the consequences that different management approaches have on coastal processes, natural environments and flood and coastal erosion risk. The software highlights the range of interests that need to be balanced on the coast and demonstrates the difficult decisions that have to be made in some areas.

  • Description: Data Basin is an web tool that connects users with conservation datasets, tool, and expertise. Individuals and organization can explore and download a vast library of conservation datasets, upload their own data, and produce customized maps and charts that can be easily shared. Currently, spatial data pertaining to conservation are widely scattered, difficult to locate, and often unavailable. Valuable time and resources are routinely wasted locating and gaining access to important datasets, reviewing data quality, modifying file formats, and then learning proprietary software. Data Basin allows scientists, practitioners, and citizens to overcome existing challenges by making reliable datasets, tools, and information about experts centrally available and easy to use.

  • Description: Identifies perennial and ephemeral streams in Oregon. Uses field indicators that identify evidence of flow.


  • Description: To supplement the rapid bioassessment protocols (Plafkin et al. 1989; rev. Barbour et al. 1999) by illustrating how Region 10 States have adapted the RBPs for the northwestern U.S.; to define the minimum components necessary to conduct stream bioassessment; and to encourage consistency of sampling methods to facilitate data sharing. Ordinal scale, nominal scale, and quantitative output.

  • Description: The Field Evaluation Manual for Ohio's Primary Headwater Habitat Streams is intended to promote standardized assessment of actual and expected biological conditions in primary headwater habitat (PHWH) streams in Ohio. The principal regulatory and/or administrative impetus for development of the protocols was pursuant to water quality standards (designated uses, water quality criteria, antidegradation) for the NPDES program. The methods outlined in the Manual are designed to statistically differentiate among three quality classes (designated uses) of PHWH streams in Ohio: Class III PHWH Stream (cool-cold water adapted native fauna); Class II PHWH Stream (warm water adapted native fauna); Class I PHWH Stream (ephemeral stream, normally dry channel). Descriptive, ordinal scale, nominal scale, and quantitative output.

  • Description: Florida DOT (FDOT) pioneered the award-winning Efficient Transportation Decision Making (ETDM) program, which collaboratively works with Florida Water Management Districts (WMDs) to prioritize resource mitigation needs at the watershed or basin level. WMDs proactively acquire compensation sites and restore wetlands by watershed. ETDM accelerates environmental review for state environmental permits, CWA §404, and ESA mitigation, in addition to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements. Early identification of potential impacts is promoted through the program's Environmental Screening Tool (EST), an online database that overlays transportation project and resource data from various sources, allowing planners to share data and foresee potential ecological impacts of infrastructure investments.

  • Description: Assess the quality and quantity of available habitat for selected wildlife species by comparing the same area at different points in time or by different areas at one point in time. Ordinal scale output.


  • Description: The Land Change Modeler (LCM) for Ecological Sustainability is an integrated software environment for analyzing land cover change, projecting its course into the future, and assessing its implications for habitat and biodiversity change. Commissioned by the Andes Conservation Biology Center of Conservation International, LCM is vertical application developed by Clark Labs and integrated within the IDRISI GIS and Image Processing software package. The Land Change Modeler for Ecological Sustainability is oriented to the pressing problem of accelerated land conversion and the very specific analytical needs of biodiversity conservation. LCM is organized into five areas: analyzing past land cover change, modeling the process of change, predicting the course of change into the future, assessing its implications for biodiversity, and evaluating planning interventions for maintaining ecological sustainability.

  • Description: LEAM urban land-use transformation modeling begins with drivers, those forces (typically human) that contribute to land-use change. Model drivers represent the dynamic interactions between the urban system and the surrounding landscape. Each driver is developed as a contextually independent sub-model which allows for calibration before being run simultaneously in the LEAM model. Environmental, economic and social system impacts of alternative scenarios such as different land-use policies, growth trends, and unexpected events can be tested out in the LEAM modeling environment. Scenario results and impact assessments can be displayed in a number of ways: as simulation movies, through a built-in mapping tool, in graph or chart displays, or simply as raw data. LEAM's visual representation of each scenario's outcome provides an intuitive means of understanding the potential of decisions and acts as a catalyst for discussion and communal decision-making. All driver models figure into creating the development probability model, while the impact models respond to the land use change that is triggered by the development probability model. Impacts assessed by the LEAM model are also used in the creation of sustainable indices and indicators that can feed back into the model drivers for new policy formation.

  • Description: Marxan is software that delivers decision support for conservation planning. It was designed to help inform the selection of new conservation areas for minimal cost, and facilitate the exploration of trade-offs between conservation and socio-economic objectives. Marxan can help set priorities for conservation action by highlighting those places that are likely to be important inclusions in an efficient reserve network. Marxan can also be employed as a tool for evaluating how well existing reserve networks achieve the goals of representativeness and comprehensiveness.

  • Description: An HGM reference-based assessment restricted to depressional and riverine class wetlands located in Washington's western lowlands.


  • Description: Identify and describe naturally occurring, ecologically distinct, spatial units in river. Uses include inventory, research (sampling designs based on stratification of river valley segment types), and basis for resource management. Descriptive output.

  • Description: The original 1992 version of MnRAM was developed to provide a practical assessment tool that would help local authorities make sound wetland management decisions as they assumed responsibility for regulating wetland impacts. The current version represents a more refined procedure that provides numeric, rather than the original descriptive, ratings. It may be applied to existing wetlands or potential restoration sites. Descriptive and ordinal scale output.

  • Description: The Ohio Rapid Assessment Method is designed to aid in the determination of wetland categories as defined in Ohio's Wetland Antidegradation Rule. The use of the Ohio Rapid Assessment Method should not be considered as a substitute, and is not intended to be a substitute, for detailed studies of the functions and biology of a wetland.

  • Description: Being developed as a rapid functional assessment combining visual assessments and collection of spatial data. Considers both wetland functions and conditions.

  • Description: To provide a technique that (1) assesses 4 major functions and 7 values of vernal pool wetlands, (2) is standardized and rapid (in the sense that the procedure can be completed in one day or less), (3) is well-documented with scientific literature, mainly from Oregon, and (4) can be used to prioritize vernal pool complexes and compare them before and after restoration or impact. Ordinal scale output.


  • Description: To provide a rapid, reproducible measure of stream habitat generally corresponding to the physical stream factors that affect fish communities and other aquatic life. Results in an index (scale 0 to 100), representing an evaluation of a stream's macrohabitat characteristics that are important to fish communities relative to streams within a given watershed or region.

  • Description: Provide a regional evaluation of the condition of wetland (river and lake) resources in order to aid in development of a watershed management plan. Nominal scale output.

  • Description: The Handbooks have a focus on those watershed process and features critical to its riparian corridor management objectives.

  • Description: The Trust Fund helps make large-scale conservation possible. The program is able to implement large-scale watershed efforts that restore, enhance, and protect water quality through cost-effective, ecologically preferable projects. By using the Conservancy's conservation planning, projects are part of ongoing conservation initiatives with comprehensive ecological management plans.

  • Description: To identify and classify subwatersheds that are vulnerable to changes in land use based on estimates of current and future impervious cover; and to identify subwatersheds that warrant restoration actions. Descriptive output.


  • Description: Estimates wetland benefits of proposed wetland restoration projects submitted for funding under the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act (CWPPRA). The application in the plan formulation process is described in USGS (2006). Ordinal scale output.

  • Description: To allow a qualitative holistic evaluation of wildlife habitat for particular tracts of land statewide (Texas) without imposing significant time requirements. WHAP is intended to be used for (a) evaluating impacts upon wildlife populations from development project alternatives, (b) establishing baseline conditions, (c) comparing tracts of land which are candidates for land acquisition or mitigation, and (d) evaluating general habitat quality and wildlife management potential for tracts of land over large geographical areas. Ordinal scale output.