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T&D > Programs Areas > Forest Management > Landscape Simulations Program Areas
Landscape Simulations

This project was proposed to evaluate landscape simulation software for its use in making and presenting natural resource land management plans. The primary user of this type of product would be the landscape architects of the Forest Service. Many of these people have used or are using this type of software to perform this function. The goal of this project was to determine what software was available and compare and contrast features of various software packages. This would provide a guide for employees to use when considering the purchase of a landscape simulation software package.

The first phase of this project was determining what characteristics such a program would require to be useful to the USDA Forest Service. This was determined through discussions with Landscape Architects, Kevin Colby and Eric Krews. There are various reasons for using landscape simulation software. One of the key reasons is to provide a visual representation of landscape change when presenting management options to the public. This visual representation would provide presenters and planners with the ability to assess and display the effects of trails, buildings, roads, fire mitigation, and timber harvesting on the viewshed.

There are several requirements of a software package to allow it to meet these goals. The most basic requirement is the ability to model the landscape in a three dimensional form. The software also needs to be able to model forests, roads, and trails accurately on the landscape. The ability to place cameras in particular locations to obtain appropriate views is important. Finally the ability to add, remove, and manipulate landscape features to simulate changes is required.

Modeling a landscape in three dimensions requires the ability to obtain files that contain three dimensional data for the particular piece of land. These files are called Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) and are produced by the USGS. While these do contain some flaws, they are adequate for most landscape models. These can be obtained free of charge from vendor websites. These websites can be found at the USGS website. These datasets come in the standard 1:24,000 scale as well as other sizes.

Most software packages that model three dimensional landscapes provide the ability to place viewpoints, usually called cameras.

The ability to model forests, roads, trails, and water features accurately is accomplished only with specialized software. This software will be discussed later in this document. This tends to be problematic for most software. One requirement of the software reviewed was its ability to use USDA Forest Service datasets that contain stand data. This data is usually in the form of a GIS shapefile obtained with the ESRI software, ARCInfo. This is the standard software used by the Forest Service to map and inventory stand data. In order to accurately use this data, the simulation software needs to have the ability to place the stands in the polygons they belong to on the landscape. Another important part of this capability is determining the size and density of vegetative features.

To accurately represent the vegetation the software must be able to model realistic tree species. This includes the ability to represent specific species at various stages of growth. An additional feature would be the ability to represent understory and ground vegetation accurately and with some realism.

Manipulation of the landscape includes the ability to simulate and display timber harvest practices and the cut and fill associated with road and trail building.

The biggest challenge for software is its ability to accurately portray stands, their characteristics, and the manipulation of the landscape. There are a multitude of software packages available, free and commercially, that model landscapes. There are very few that will accurately display stands, roads, trails, buildings, and water features.

In evaluating software for this project, cost and design intent were taken into account. Design intent determines the ease of use, the visualization options, and the applicability to USDA Forest Service needs.

The following is a list of software products that were looked at and considered for evaluation.
  1. Visual Nature Studio
  2. Ecomodeler
  3. Community VIZ
  4. Eaglepoint
  5. Skyline Software
  6. The Virtual Terrain Project
  7. Microdem
  8. Envision
  9. Genesis
  10. Worldbuilder
  11. Blueberry 3D
  12. Creator
  13. Orchestra
A complete list of software designed to model three dimensional earth can be found at The Virtual Terrain Projects website. This is a very good website with a large amount of information about modeling terrain and ground features.

In depth evaluation was not performed on Community VIZ, Blueberry 3D, Orchestra, and Creator due to the high cost of these products, over $10,000. These products, except Orchestra, were designed primarily for the military to simulate combat operations. They are very good products, but there are other products designed more specifically for natural resource managers. These products include Envision, Genesis, Visual Nature Studio, and Ecomodeler. Orchestra was designed for landscape simulation and includes growth simulation, but is not widely available in the US. It is also an expensive software package, $11,000.