US Department of Transportation

FHWA PlanWorks: Better Planning, Better Projects

IEFStep 3 : Create Regional Ecosystem Framework (Conservation Strategy + Transportation Plan)

Integrated Ecological Framework Step

Purpose & Outcome


Integrate the conservation and restoration strategy (data and plans) prepared in Step 2 with transportation and land use data and plans (LRTP, STIP, and TIP) to create the REF.

  • The REF, an integrated map of resource conservation and restoration priorities, transportation long range plans and other land use, infrastructure information, and socio-economic information.
  • Identified areas where planned transportation projects intersect with management/conservation priorities, including existing conservation areas.


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

  1. Overlay the geospatially mapped Long Range Transportation Plan (or TIP/STIP) with conservation priorities and other land uses
  2. Identify and show (1) areas and resources potentially impacted by transportation projects and (2) potential opportunities for joint action on conservation or restoration priorities that could count for 404 and Section 7 regulatory requirements.
  3. Identify the high-level conservation goals and priorities and opportunities for achieving them, relative to the transportation plan and other land uses/plans.
  4. Review and verify the REF with stakeholders.

Technical Questions

  • What areas will be directly impacted by transportation development?
  • How severe are the likely impacts in combination with other land uses and/or cumulative impacts?
  • What and where are the affected natural resources?
  • How many of these natural resources are statutorily regulated and how many are imperiled but not legally protected?
  • What areas could be targeted for mitigation? Would these areas contribute to meeting REF objectives?
  • What areas should we target to avoid impacts due to the presence of irreplaceable resources (i.e., endemic species or habitats)?


  • Existing transportation plans
  • Land use data segregated into:
    • Actual current land use
    • Allowable or planned land use (e.g., from local government comprehensive plans/zoning or public land management plans)
    • Predicted/forecast land use (e.g., from urban growth models)
    • Proposed land use that falls outside of existing plans (e.g., a large planned unit development)
    • Existing conservation lands

Case Study Examples

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

    Description: This analysis looked at how spatial accounting could be used to support two tasks central to Colorado DOT's mission: (1) National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documentation of cumulative effects associated with individual projects; and (2) assessment of overall environmental consequences of transportation investments designated in regional transportation plans. Based on the results of seven different workshops held with agency staff and practitioners, three groups of spatial models for analysis of environmental effects were classified: (1) Simple models include buffers on affected areas or features, delineation of roads, trails and water features across networks, overlays of affected areas, and tabulation of affected roads and features. (2) Mid-range models include weighted overlays of affected areas, habitat suitability analyses (HSI), and connectivity analyses. (3) Complex models include impervious cover analysis, transportation/land use analysis based on traffic analysis zones, and models of urban growth dynamics.

  • 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: California

    Description: Description of Road and Rail Alignment Optimization software that can be used to quickly find the best placement and alignment for transportation corridors based on the potential environmental, social, and economic impacts. 14.5 minute video:

Tools & Methods

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

  • Description: The Automated Geospatial Watershed Assessment (AGWA) Tool is a GIS-based watershed management tool that parameterizes and runs two watershed models, KINEROS2 and SWAT. AGWA is designed to provide qualitative estimates of runoff and erosion relative to landscape change. It cannot provide reliable quantitative estimates of runoff and erosion without careful calibration. It is also subject to the assumptions and limitations of its component models.

  • 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: C-Plan is designed around the concept of a decision-support system. Together with a geographic information system (GIS) it: maps the options for achieving an explicit conservation goal in a region, allows users to decide which sites (areas of land or water) should be placed under some form of conservation management, accepts and displays these decisions, and then lays out the new pattern of options that result. Most of the computer code that makes up the software is designed to calculate and display information (using tables, maps, or diagrams) that can be used to guide conservation planning decisions. Such information includes:the characteristics (in terms of the biodiversity feature they contain) of any of the sites involved in the assessment, collections of sites that have various combinations of characteristics, the extent to which the conservation target for any particular feature (e.g. species or forest ecosystem) has been reached by conservation decisions made up to that point, a log of the reasons for making all decisions.

  • 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: CommunityViz is an advanced yet easy-to-use GIS software extension that is designed to help people visualize, analyze, and communicate about important planning decisions. Widely adopted by land-use planners, it supports informed, collaborative decision-making by illustrating and analyzing alternative planning scenarios. It features flexible and interactive analysis tools, a rich set of presentation tools, and several options for 3D visualization of future places.

  • Description: CAPS is an ecological community-based approach for assessing the ecological integrity of lands and waters and prioritizing land for habitat and biodiversity conservation. The approach defines ecological integrity as the ability of an area to support biodiversity and the ecosystem processes necessary to sustain biodiversity over the long term. The approach assumes that by conserving intact, ecologically-defined communities of high integrity, most species and ecosystems can be conserved.

  • Description:


  • Description: EMDS integrates the logic engine of NetWeaver to perform landscape evaluations, and the decision modeling engine of Criterium DecisionPlus for evaluating management priorities.

  • Description: Envision is a GIS-based tool (beta version) for developing alternative-futures analysis used to model the landscape impacts of various policy scenarios on land use change and accompanying biophysical impacts. Strongest applications are mapping the cumulative effects of multiple actions at multiple sites as it tracks impacts over time. Has the ability to plug in evaluative models (e.g., credit calculators).

  • Description: Fairfax County developed a Stream Protection Strategy as part of on-going progress towards a watershed management program. The Strategy includes methods that build upon and incorporate extant bioassessment programs and will allow the Stormwater Management Branch to better anticipate, prevent, prioritize, and correct adverse impacts to the County's stream resources. The Strategy incorporates biological sampling (e.g. benthic macroinvertebrates and fish) and rapid physical habitat and geomorphology assessments. Descriptive, 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: FRAGSTATS is a spatial pattern analysis program for categorical maps. The landscape subject to analysis is user-defined and can represent any spatial phenomenon. FRAGSTATS simply quantifies the areal extent and spatial configuration of patches within a landscape; it is incumbent upon the user to establish a sound basis for defining and scaling the landscape (including the extent and grain of the landscape) and the scheme upon which patches are classified and delineated.

  • Description: The Conservation Fund's strategic conservation services use a green infrastructure planning approach-simultaneously focusing on the best lands to conserve and the best lands to accommodate development and human infrastructure-to help communities, state and federal agencies, and businesses balance environmental and economic goals through strategies that lead to smarter, sustainable land use; Green infrastructure plans: Development of comprehensive green infrastructure plans that identify community priorities and goals, inventory current community assets, map green space networks, develop strategies for implementation, and build capacity for communities to achieve their conservation visions; Decision support tool design and implementation: Integrate data, knowledge and analyses (e.g. ecosystem services, optimization, suitability analysis) to support land use decision making and prudent use of resources; Mitigation support: Identify and evaluate mitigation opportunities for agencies and business organizations from Habitat Conservation Plans, transportation improvement projects, military compatible- use buffer programs and pipeline/transmission/energy corridors.

  • 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: In metropolitan areas, urbanizing rural landscapes and most other development situations, the existence of multiple plans and many distinct government agencies and interest groups is normal, and should not be viewed as unusual or unexpected. The many plans that affect overlapping geographic areas are created by different stakeholders and are inconsistent in at least some respects, which is often seen as a problem. If we accept this situation as typical and expected, however, we can develop tools to treat these plans as an information system of plans (ISoP) and use them to advantage. The ability to access and compare multiple plans yields more information pertinent to making a decision than can be found in any one plan, which of necessity suppresses disagreement and multiple perspectives. The result is an ISoP that is a persistent, interactive and continually changing set of information that puts plans to work rather than on a shelf. Rather than pretending to create a new, consistent, overriding combination of these plans or "yet another plan" (YAP), the ISoP approach argues that planners should learn to work effectively with these many plans (Hopkins, 2001a, Hopkins, 2001b and Hopkins et al., 2005).

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


  • Description: Metroquest software allows a group to come to consensus on planning objectives (such as housing densities) and immediately see the future that can result for an entire metro region. MetroQuest offers customized mapping of client city-regions, as well as output tables demonstrating the performance in key indicator areas such as ecological footprints and commuting time, and the extent to which the region is meeting overall planning targets.

  • Description: MDOT initiated use of a geospatial site selection tool for strategic identification of ideal compensation areas - called the Wetland Mitigation Site Suitablity Index (WMSSI). This wetland mitigation tool allowed MDOT to analyze watershed trends in aquatic resources and subsequently rank possible mitigation sites by restoration potential; projected restoration value was measured based on hydric soils, historic wetlands, and topographic wetness data. The tool calculates composite suitability rankings by determining the weighted geometric mean of the environmental variables. Higher index values indicate more suitable locations. This technique builds on methods published by Van Lonkhuyzen (2004) and on the USFWS Habitat Evaluation Procedure (1981). The result of the WMSSI tool analyses in combination with a property selection tool integrates MDOTs methodology for acquiring real estate for mitigation sites with locations identified by WMSSI. The property selection tool includes criteria like size of parcel, adjacency to roads, existing wetlands and MI Dept of Natural Resource lands. "Under a project-by-project mitigation strategy, MDOT reported that staff commonly accompanied regulators on at least 4-5 site visits to determine the ecological suitability of potential restoration sites; now, MDOT's progressive approach to mitigation prevents consideration of less promising compensation sites and MDOT receives approval for around 95% of mitigation sites on their first site visit (Venner 2010). Over the past decade, Michigan DOT (MDOT) has transitioned from a traditional, project-by-project approach to aquatic resource compensatory mitigation, which coupled timelines and funds for wetland mitigation with individual transportation projects, to a watershed approach that separated compensation and transportation project funding. Allowing holistic consideration of wetland mitigation has permitted MDOT to achieve economies of scale via off-site, consolidated wetland mitigation sites, reducing per-acre compensation costs from typically exceeding $100,000, and generally falling between $75,000 and $150,000, to a present-day average cost of $25,000-$30,000 per acre (Venner 2010)." (cited from NCHRP 25-25, Task 67 report)

  • 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 Miradi software tool helps conservation practitioners implement the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation. Miradi provides an easy-to-use, interview-style interface that walks a project team through each step of the process of designing, managing and monitoring their project according to the best practice standards established and tested by the world's major conservation organizations.

  • 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: 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: Development of a multivariate model of reference stream conditions for the Virginia Coastal Zone using biological, ecological, and geomorphological variables.

  • 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.