It's a gargantuan task. No wonder it took three years to gather data on the natural resources of California and make them available in one map system.
Called the California Digital Conservation Atlas, it provides access to about 80 databases from more than a dozen state agencies.
The atlas is a work in progress, but since February it has been online providing information on urban growth projections, toxic sites, farm land, sensitive wildlife areas and wetlands.
Different sets of data can be layered onto one map, customized by anyone with access to a computer with Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. The goal of the atlas project: Help state employees, researchers and residents share information so resources can be managed efficiently. The issue is of increasing importance in light of a state population that expands by 600,000 each year.
Mary Nichols, secretary of California Resources Agency, got to work on the atlas after meeting Jack Dangermond, owner of the Environmental System Research Institute. Based in Redlands, the institute provided software for the atlas and expert advice on how to make it a reality.
The atlas is part of the Legacy Project which began three years ago. It is a team of 11, working to take inventory of the state's natural resources. The Legacy Project's annual budget is $1.5 million. It is expected to take six years to complete.
"That's what the Legacy Project itself is about," said Charlie Casey, Legacy outreach coordinator. "To collect information, compile it and make it available to the public, to state departments, to the Legislature and whomever else wants it."
The Legacy Project has conducted public workshops throughout the state to gather information about its land and wildlife. Last week such a workshop was conducted in Auburn. A planner from Mono County informed Legacy staff that wildlife habitats in the county are missing from the atlas.
As the atlas is improved over time, it is expected to ease efforts on projects such as counting the number of acres of wetland in California. Otherwise the undertaking would take 30 to 40 years to complete if Legacy was not working it.
"If we get all the funding, $600,000 to $700,000, we should finish it in about two years," said Casey, of establishing a precise inventory of wetlands.
Key to the success of the atlas will be ensuring that the data online remains up-to-date. Just as important is work to make the atlas easy to use.
"I think for the general audience things could be simpler," said Marc Hoshovsky, environmental scientist at the Department of Fish and Game, who is working on the Legacy team. "It's not as intuitive as we'd like right now. By fiddling around you can figure it out."
Winston Hickox, secretary for the California Environmental Protection Agency, said the Legacy Project is a natural fit with the work of his agency. The California EPA uses environmental indicators to figure out if protections in place are working.
"For example, (we're) using measurements of the clarity of Lake Tahoe as an indicator of the health of your region's ecosystem," Hickox said. "This is one of 84 indicators we're using to gain a comprehensive understanding of California's environment."
The California Digital Conservation Atlas can be found at www.legacy.ca.gov/new_atlas.epl.