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Harvard Forest Data Archive


Wildlands of New England GIS Data 1900-2022

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  • Lead: David Foster, Emily Johnson, Brian Hall
  • Investigators: Brian Donahue, Edward Faison, Lillian Howell, Malcolm Hunter Jr., Lloyd Irland, Jonathan Leibowitz, Susan Masino, David Orwig, Robert Perschel, David Publicover, Jamie Sayen, Nancy Sferra, Elizabeth Thompson, Jonathan Thompson
  • Contact: Information Manager
  • Start date: 1900
  • End date: 2022
  • Status: complete
  • Location: New England
  • Latitude: +41.00 to +47.47 degrees
  • Longitude: -73.70 to -67.00 degrees
  • Elevation: 0 to 1917 meter
  • Datum: WGS84
  • Taxa:
  • Release date: 2023
  • Language: English
  • EML file: knb-lter-hfr.435.3
  • DOI: digital object identifier
  • EDI: data package
  • DataONE: data package
  • Related links:
  • Study type: historical
  • Research topic: conservation and management; regional studies
  • LTER core area: land use and land cover change, human-environment interactions
  • Keywords: conservation, geographic information systems, management, maps, spatial vector
  • Abstract:

    Wildlands in New England is the first U.S. study to map and characterize within one region all conserved lands that, by design, allow natural processes to unfold with no active management or intervention. These “forever wild lands” include federal Wilderness areas along with diverse public and private natural areas and reserves. Knowing the precise locations of Wildlands, their characteristics, and their protection status is important as both a baseline for advancing conservation initiatives and an urgent call to action for supporting nature and society. Wildlands play a unique role in the integrated approach to conservation and land planning advanced by the Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands & Communities (WWF&C) initiative, which calls for: at least 70 percent of the region to be protected forest; Wildlands to occupy at least 10 percent of the land; and all existing farmland to be permanently conserved. This research was conducted by WWF&C partners Harvard Forest (Harvard University), Highstead Foundation, and Northeast Wilderness Trust, in collaboration with over one hundred conservation organizations and municipal, state, and federal agencies.

    This dataset contains the Geographical Information System (GIS) polygon layer of Wildlands created by this project and used in all analyses for the 2023 report. Another GIS layer will be updated as new Wildlands are brought to our attention or created and will be available at for researchers.

  • Methods:

    Research progressed through several iterative phases: (1) establishment of the study’s scope and approach to identify and evaluate potential wildlands; (2) region-wide outreach to public agencies and conservation organizations for potential Wildlands, collection of supporting information for each property, and refinement of evaluation methods; (3) systematic review of properties according to the established criteria, review of the emerging database with all external collaborators, data correction, and final review of challenging and newly uncovered parcels; and (4) analysis, interpretation, and product development.

    Exploration, Outreach, and Data Collection

    Beginning in 2019, we initially contacted more than 125 professionals across conservation organizations and agencies to develop an expanding list of properties for evaluation. We revised this list through referrals to additional individuals, agencies, and organizations, and ultimately received information on over 600 potential wildlands. We obtained pertinent documents for every property through on-line review and extensive conversations with organizations and agencies. In the few cases where complete information was unavailable, we set the parcels aside for future evaluation. Every accepted Wildland was given a “Wildland Property i.d.” to facilitate cross-referencing the database, GIS map, and archival records. Each resulting Wildland is unique, based on (i) owner, (ii) protection mechanism, (iii) type of management, and (iv) name. An individual Wildland may comprise a single tract or multiple adjoining tracts that share a common owner, protection mechanism, management and name (e.g., Whetstone Woods Wildlife Sanctuary in Wendell, MA with a dozen or more tracts and Connecticut College Natural Areas with three tracts). Tracts with a common owner that are managed, protected, or named differently were given unique numbers and names, such as the four Wildlands in Baxter State Park or nine separate Wildlands in the White Mountain National Forest.

    Minimum Data Requirements to Meet the Wildland Criteria

    As reviewed above, we evaluated each area for: (i) Wildland intent, (ii) translation of that intent into management for natural process and minimal human impacts, and (iii) permanent protection of this Wildland status.

    Our approach recognizes that land conservation embraces great variation in philosophy, intent, level of protection, and approach to management and that the resulting size, setting, condition and human experience of different properties vary significantly. While we set strict criteria for Wildland conservation, the application of our criteria sought to accommodate the significant variation in conditions that occur from large and remote Wilderness areas to small suburban reserves and from previously harvested industrial timberlands on new Wildlands to ancient old-growth forests.

    In addition to documentation on the three criteria above, we also gathered the following information for each accepted Wildland property:

    1. Property name (many properties have multiple names)

    2. Fee owner

    3. Owner type (public agency or NGO type, etc.)

    4. Year (protected as Wildland, not acquired or conserved)

    5. Town/municipality

    6. State

    7. Catalyst or motivation for Wildland designation

    8. Acres (Wildland area only; areas were estimated on the resulting GIS of all properties)

    9. Protection mechanism; documents with Wildland intent and excluded activities

    10. Entity that enforces the terms of Wildland protection

    11. Whether resource extraction is explicitly excluded

    12. Whether the governing body (e.g., board of directors, director, president) may create exceptions to allow for active management

    13. Whether broad exceptions exist for active management to: a. Address human health and safety concerns; b. Maintain or create trails or open scenic viewpoints; c. Broadly support ecosystem integrity, health, functioning, etc.

    14. Spatial location and characteristics

    Obtaining and Reconciling the Spatial Data for the Wildlands Map

    We developed the Wildlands GIS layer to be compatible with existing layers of protected open space in order to support combined analyses, minimize spatial inconsistencies among different datasets and applications, and encourage broad and open use in other applications. Most Wildlands were entered into the GIS database by copying existing polygons from the Harvard Forest-Highstead Foundation New England Protected Open Space (NEPOS) layer (Harvard Forest 2020), which is freely available and assembled from widely-used regional data sources such as TNC's Secured Areas, National Conservation Easement Database, PADUS, and state GIS layers.

    Additional information was employed to confirm or adjust property shape from the NEPOS layer, including maps and acreages from deeds, easements, or management plans and GIS layers provided by landowners or easement holders. If sources revealed additional protected lands not in NEPOS, these were digitized to match parcels boundaries in NEPOS and/or state tax parcel maps. Although the resulting property shapes in the Wildland layer may be slightly less accurate than surveyed maps available to the fee or easement holders, the larger objective of compatibility with the NEPOS layer and associated map layers used widely by our collaborators (cf., Thompson et al. 2020, Sims et al. 2022) overrode the desire to resolve minor inconsistencies. Ponds, lakes, and other open-water areas contained in the National Hydrography Dataset (NHD) are not included in many Wildland properties and were removed from all Wildlands for consistency. Small areas of active land management that we detected in Wildlands such as mowed fields, established roads, and developed areas, were digitized from aerial photographs and removed from the Wildland polygon.

    Project Review and Data Correction

    In late December 2020, we provided an update consisting of a project summary, list of all properties considered, and database and map of Wildland properties to over 300 collaborators who had shared data or insights with the project, in order to solicit feedback on the study, confirm the accuracy of existing data, and identify additional properties. This exchange yielded corrections to the data, additional supporting documentation on protection mechanisms and management, and several properties for review. Subsequent outreach and data collection concentrated on new properties and those with complex or missing data.

    Once the full database was assembled (December 2021), we developed a companion online web map depicting all Wildlands and shared both with all previous correspondents, every organization and agency represented in the database, and numerous collaborators. Initial analysis was performed on these data as final corrections were made to the database. Recognizing that the Wildland landscape of New England is continually expanding, we established a cut-off date for new properties and final corrections (June 2022) and undertook the analyses presented in this report on that database. Any subsequent corrections to the data and map are noted in the Appendices. We continue to receive and review additional properties on a rolling basis. Additional Wildlands are being added to the online database and map, but are not included in the analyses, tables and maps presented in this report.

  • Organization: Harvard Forest. 324 North Main Street, Petersham, MA 01366, USA. Phone (978) 724-3302. Fax (978) 724-3595.

  • Project: The Harvard Forest Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program examines ecological dynamics in the New England region resulting from natural disturbances, environmental change, and human impacts. (ROR).

  • Funding: National Science Foundation LTER grants: DEB-8811764, DEB-9411975, DEB-0080592, DEB-0620443, DEB-1237491, DEB-1832210. Other funding: Highstead Foundation.

  • Use: This dataset is released to the public under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (No Rights Reserved). Please keep the dataset creators informed of any plans to use the dataset. Consultation with the original investigators is strongly encouraged. Publications and data products that make use of the dataset should include proper acknowledgement.

  • License: Creative Commons Zero v1.0 Universal (CC0-1.0)

  • Citation: Foster D, Johnson E, Hall B. 2023. Wildlands of New England GIS Data 1900-2022. Harvard Forest Data Archive: HF435 (v.3). Environmental Data Initiative:

Detailed Metadata

hf435-01: Wildlands of New England 2022 tabular data

  1. PropID: unique record code for a Wildland assigned for use in this study; specific to each parcel and to each area in a Wildland with a different protection mechanism. For example, if a property has one area that is protected by a wildland easement, and another area protected by statute, it will have two WildIDs and two GIS polygons. These are treated as distinct Wildlands in this study.
  2. PropName: name of Wildland. Note that many Wildlands have multiple names and may have changed names over the years
  3. FeeOwner: fee owner, as noted in the supporting documents (see hf345-03-abbr-guide.csv for more information)
  4. OwnerType1: category of landowner. The field "OwnerType3" was used for analyses in the 2023 report.
    • educational: educational
    • NGO: Non Governmental Organization (Conservation Organization)
    • private: private
    • public: public
  5. OwnerType2: subcategory of landowner OwnerType1. The field "OwnerType3" was used for analyses in the 2023 report.
  6. OwnerType3: broad owner categories used in the 2023 Wildlands report
  7. YearOrig: year of initial Wildland designation/protection as best estimated from the supporting documents. Note: this may postdate the year when the Wildland was first conserved from development.
  8. W_Deed: whether the wildland intent was observed in a conservation easement (/restriction), declaration of trust, or other deed restriction
    • Y: observed in a conservation easement, declaration of trust, or other deed restriction
    • N: not observed in a conservation easement, declaration of trust, or other deed restriction
  9. W_Federal: whether the wildland intent was observed in a federal act/statute
    • Y: observed in a federal act/statute
    • N: not observed in a federal act/statute
  10. W_State: whether the wildland intent was observed in a state act/statute
    • Y: observed in a state act/statute
    • N: not observed in a state act/statute
  11. W_MgmtPlan: whether the wildland intent was observed in a management plan. Note: not all management plans were acquired and/or reviewed. For example, if a private landowner had a management plan on land under conservation easement the conservation was reviewed but the management plan was not reviewed.
    • Y: not observed in a management plan
    • N: observed in a management plan
  12. W_Other: Wildland intent was identified via a mechanism besides statute or CE/DOT/deed restriction/management plan. This mechanism includes one or more of the following: Organization or agency plan/policy; state agency assurance; memorandum of agreement/understanding; or a will upon death.
  13. ProtDocs: category of designation/protection type as relevant to the Wildland status. Determined through review of supporting documents. Includes only those that were identified and reviewed (see hf345-03-abbr-guide.csv for more information). Note: "CE" (conservation easement) includes conservation restrictions and/or amended conservation easements. "Administrative decision" indicates an internal classification that does not require legislative action or a public vote and yet is not indicative of a policy or mission of the organization or agency. It may include land that has been maintained as a Wildland through long-term tradition and consistent Wildland management. "Policy" indicates a classification that requires legislative action and/or a public or board vote and may also apply to organizations in which the overarching mission and management approach for all interests is consistent with the Wildland criteria set forth.
  14. ThrdPartYN: whether the Wildland's protection is surveilled by an outside entity ("Third Party") with active interest
    • Y: surveilled by an outside entity
    • N: not surveilled by an outside entity
  15. ThrdPartID: organization/agency that oversees activities that are restricted within the protection/guidance doc ("Third Party"). (Examples: For Wildlands encumbered by a conservation easement this column would indicate who held the easement; For unencumbered wildlands that are designated through a property-specific management plan this column would indicate "self" as there was no indication of an outside organization overseeing restricted activities)
  16. MgmtPlanTy: type of management plan
  17. State: state or states
  18. AcresGIS: acreage of Wildland as calculated through geospatial (GIS) review. GIS polygons were created through review of maps/descriptions in supporting documents, existing research data, shapefiles provided by organizational/agency representatives, and/or through discussion with organizational/agency representatives. GIS acreage may be slightly different than acreage cited in supporting documents; for this research a 95% accuracy rate was sought. Boundaries are approximate. (Note: Acreage pertains only to the Wildland area within the corresponding WildID. Wildlands that have multiple protection mechanisms will have acreages split between multiple WildIDs) (unit: acre / missing value: NA)

hf435-02: primary list of Wildlands considered for 2023 report

  1. PropID: identifier number for property. There are some duplicates for properties that were not considered Wildlands in the study.
  2. PropName: name of the property
  3. State: state the property is in
  4. AcresGIS: acres as calculated in the GIS (unit: acre / missing value: NA)
  5. map_GIS: whether the property was included in the analysis
    • Y: included in the analysis
    • N: not included in the analysis
  6. currentDesignation: whether included or reasons for not including it
    • Included: the property's documentation and map data has been received, reviewed and archived. The property meets the wildland criteria established for this research. These are the only properties shown on the "Included Wildlands" table and the webmap.
    • Not included (criteria): based on the information received, the property did not meet the wildland criteria being used for this study
    • Not included (geography): the property is not in a New England state (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont)
    • Not included (org/agency): research on the property was initiated but was unable to proceed due to the unavailability of conservation staff and/or documents
    • Not reviewed (resources): research did not begin due to lack of resources. A number of factors frustrated the complete evaluation of a few properties: a financial charge from the holder of the information; the need to hire professional assistance to undertake advanced interpretation of legal language; or submission of the property after completion of the final phase of data collection. Data collection for wildlands will be ongoing as part of the Wildlands & Woodlands project and so more properties will be evaluated and added over time, but those additional properties are not included in the analyses reported in this initial study.
    • Not reviewed (size): due to time constraints, we chose not to investigate every property less than 10 acres. In rare cases we retained properties less than 10 acres due to their size being confirmed after research had completed.
  7. note: note

hf435-03: guide to abbreviations and acronyms

  1. acro_abbr: abbreviation or acronym for organizations and management unit types
  2. fullText: definition

hf435-04: Wildlands of New England 2022 GIS polygons with tabular data

  • Compression: zip
  • Format: Esri shapefile
  • Type: vector GIS