April 16, 2024

How Texas is Using GIS for Conservation with Kelsi Schwind

Written by: Meg Scribner


Celebrating Earth Day & Conservation on GEOTalks

In the April edition of GEOTalks, we switched things up. Joined by special guest host and Global Mapper Product Manager Mackenzie Mills, we spoke with Kelsi Schwind — a GIS and Remote Sensing Specialist from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Landscape Ecology Program. Kelsi won the Blue Marble Geographics Academic Scholarship in 2020, so we were excited to catch up with her and discuss a project she’s been developing with the Landscape Ecology Program. She joined us on the show to share how GIS technology can enable progress in conservation.

We discussed the budding efforts to preserve the Texas Hill Country’s Bigtooth maple population, a species of tree that’s native to North America. Kelsi Schwind is a Spatial Ecologist who is notably involved in a project that will shape the future of these trees. In the episode, she shared how she’s been developing an automated method to extract canyons from digital elevation models (DEMs) to support the research of this species and aid in its conservation. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department assigned this task to Kelsi following research that indicated a significant decline in the survival of Bigtooth maple trees in Texas.

History of the Bigtooth Maple in Texas

Bigtooth maples (Acer grandidentatum) are a species of tree native to the Texas Hill Country. They’ve been part of Texas’s landscape since the last Ice Age and are visited by thousands of tourists annually. Texas is home to communities of Bigtooth maples whose foliage saturates its canyons and mountainous regions in the fall. However, in recent years, scientists have noted that these ‘relic’ communities are in danger.

Landscape image of the Texas Hill Country with a tree in the foreground
Texas Hill Country

Bigtooth maple trees are rooted in Texas’s rich history and are beloved by many. However, there isn’t enough research or resources to support conservation efforts yet. A 2017 study indicated, “The current rate of recruitment in these communities is below the level needed to maintain the existing adult population because there are numerous seedlings in the communities but few saplings and individuals in the community midstory.” (Auken et al.) Recruitment in ecology refers to a species’s ability to maintain and prosper in its communities. The findings of this study indicate that the future of Bigtooth maple trees in Texas is in jeopardy. Kelsi, who grew up in the Texas Hill Country, continues to develop her understanding of the Texas landscape through her work. She has a deep connection to this region, which has made the opportunity to help preserve these communities with her GIS and Remote Sensing skills a fulfilling experience.

GIS Technology and Conservation

The mission of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is to manage and conserve the state’s natural and cultural resources. Kelsi’s work with the Landscape Ecology Program upholds that mission by laying the groundwork for preserving these communities in Texas. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is optimizing this opportunity by using the geospatial data collected in the Bigtooth maple research to enhance and develop Texas’s mapping resources, including its extensive library of land cover classifications.

“I have a colleague who is currently working on a project to identify ideal conservation areas within the state for specific species of interest. Those classes serve as a baseline so she can link species to habitat quality and assess them. Since this data is publicly available, anyone can be involved! I’ve even had a colleague who just wanted to see what kind of land cover classes were available at parks she wanted to visit.”
– Kelsi Schwind


On its website, the Landscape Ecology Program explains that it leverages GIS technology to provide ecologically focused geospatial data to inform land management and conservation planning decisions in Texas. Conservation is a movement rooted in the preservation of natural resources. However, decisions about conservation planning can’t proceed without accurate research or information on the given subject. In our discussion, Kelsi highlights how her automated method for extracting canyons has enabled her team to perform thorough research on Bigtooth maple communities and established a way to research this species for years.

“We’re hoping that we can also incorporate the canyons into (Texas) mapping systems. While we started this because of the maples in the Texas Hill Country, we will also apply them to other regions of the state that have canyons in the future.” – Kelsi Schwind

This comprehensive approach to conservation excites us about what the future holds for the Landscape Ecology Program and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Get Involved with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department

If you enjoyed learning about Kelsi’s amazing work with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Landscape Ecology Program, it doesn’t end here.

The Landscape Ecology Program provides useful, public resources, that Global Mapper users can leverage. We discussed some of these in the episode including the Ecological Mapping Systems of Texas, and the Web Map Tile Service which can be streamed directly into Global Mapper through the online data tool. Learn more about these offerings on their website.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department manages and protects the Lost Maples State Natural Area. This park is a popular destination for viewing the Bigtooth maple’s stunning fall foliage display. The park offers a range of exciting opportunities for kids and volunteers, from camping to birding to stargazing. We encourage you to check out all of the department’s programs, volunteer opportunities, and other initiatives, especially for those of our listeners living in Texas.

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Auken, Oscar W. Van, et al. “Structure of Isolated Acer Grandidentatum (Bigtooth Maple) Communities and Potential Population Changes.” SCIRP, American Journal of Plant Sciences, 11 May 2017, www.scirp.org/journal/paperinformation?paperid=76469.

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