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Tailoring GPS for the Forest Service: MTDC's Testing and Evaluation Program


Many employees in the Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, rely on the global positioning system (GPS) for accurate information on their location and for help with navigation. Just a decade ago, GPS was an expensive technology used by a few individuals in the Forest Service. Although inventory and mapping (figure 1) are now the most common uses of GPS in the Forest Service:

  • Firefighting employees use GPS to record fire boundaries.
  • District employees use GPS to record the locations of invasive species.
  • Researchers use GPS to record the locations of nesting trees or other important features of wildlife habitat.
  • Recreation specialists use GPS to record the location of trails.
  • Crews use GPS when surveying roads, boundaries, and other areas that require high accuracy.

Photo of a man carrying a backpack, GPS antenna, and using a GPS on a trail.
Figure 1—GPS is used throughout the Forest
Service for a variety of purposes. MTDC has
been evaluating GPS technology to help Forest
Service employees understand its capabilities.
(Photo by Paul Bolstad, University of Minnesota,


  • MTDC began evaluating GPS technology in 1983.

  • In the early days, MTDC helped manufacturers modify their products to meet the Forest Service's needs.

  • MTDC has managed a program that allowed Forest Ser vice employees to use GPS receivers with military-grade accuracy.

  • Test courses established on national forests in different parts of the country provide realistic tests of GPS receivers' accuracy.

  • As GPS systems improve in comingyears, MTDC will continue testing and evaluating the technology for the Forest Service.

In the early days, the accuracy of GPS receivers was poor, especially under tree canopies. Now, recreation-grade receivers cost just a few hundred dollars and provide reasonable accuracy (within 15 meters). Receivers with accuracies within a few meters (even under tree canopies) can be purchased for several thousand dollars.

Since the early 1980s, the Missoula Technology and Development Center (MTDC) has been helping the Forest Service with issues regarding GPS equipment. This report summarizes the history of the GPS program at MTDC, discusses the current state of the program, and describes the work that will be required for the Forest Service to adapt to new GPS technologies.