Wisconsin Coastal GIS Applications Project

Managing the Coasts of Wisconsin:
The Application of GIS to Coastal Resource Management

Allen H. Miller
David A. Hart
University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute and
Land Information and Computer Graphics Facility, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Presented at the Planning Wisconsin Seminar, University of Wisconsin-Madison
February 11, 1997


Coastal Management Goals
Overcoming Obstacles to GIS
Teaching the Application of GIS to Coastal Management
A Three-Phase Structure

Appendix A: Shoreland Management GIS Application -- Blue Lake, Oneida County
Appendix B: Coastal Erosion GIS Application -- Town of Mosel, Sheboygan County
Appendix C: Coastal GIS Training Summary Report

In the late sixties and early seventies, many policy-makers viewed land use as a national priority. Despite the seeming urgency, federal land use legislation failed to make its way through Congress, although a bill to manage the nation's coasts -- the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 --breezed through with bi-partisan support. As with the proposed land use legislation, crafters of the coastal legislation, as well as those charged with its implementation at both the federal and state levels, envisioned a comprehensive program to manage the nation's coasts. Even federal actions were to be consistent with new state programs. The idea was to integrate environmental, social and economic concerns at local, state and federal levels of government under one umbrella -- coastal management.

At the time, the task of integration relied on traditional tools and human limitations in handling multiple variables. Today, emerging technologies like geographic information systems (GIS), global positioning systems (GPS), remote and in situ sensing, and satellite communications provide tools needed to integrate diverse data sets and perspectives to meet the demand of comprehensive coastal management.

Coastal Management Goals

Coastal management offers the opportunity to illustrate the use of GIS technologies not only on coastal issues, but in the broader arena of land use planning. While broad-based land-use program requirements are scattered throughout local, state and federal legislation under various agencies' authorities, there is no consistent perspective or management strategy for land use. However, thanks to the national Coastal Zone Management Act, state coastal programs provide concise documentation of the public's coastal interests.

What are the public's interests in the coasts? Knecht et al. (1996) recently analyzed state coastal management programs using four major categories:

Wisconsin's Coastal Management Program, articulated through its state and local laws, identifies the public interest as:

Wisconsin also identifies two process-oriented public concerns: 1) government interrelationships, and 2) public involvement. Both are important in GIS development. For simplification, three categories of public interest -- air and water quality, special areas (to include an array of special geographies), and coastal development -- will be used as the structure for future GIS educational efforts.

In addition to defining issues of public concern, the laws that define coastal management help define the functionality needed in GIS programs. For example, subdivision requirements of 100-foot lot width and minimum lot size of 20,000 sq. feet requires that GIS systems have the capability to measure straight-line distances and areas. Defining a setback of at least 75 feet from the ordinary high-water mark calls for buffers of spatial features. Correlation can be made to other functions such as merging data sets, nearest-neighbor searches, map overlays, etc. Functions that integrate map-related information, zoning ordinances, photography, and metadata, as well as those that add orthophotos, raster images, etc. are equally important. Facilitating government interrelationships and public involvement will require yet other GIS and decision-support tools.

Overcoming Obstacles to GIS

We know from previous studies (Larsen et al., 1978) that most land use data is collected at the local level and that the primary authority for land-related decision resides with local governments. Yet when looking at applications of that data for general land management, and specifically for coastal management, one finds that documented coastal GIS applications at the local level are few and far between. As Rickman and Miller discovered when compiling their 1995 coastal GIS bibliography, only 10 of 283 citations (2.6%) originated from a local unit of government. To some extent, the limited documentation of local coastal applications results from the fact that local technical staff typically do not publish as much as individuals in universities, or state and federal government agencies. However, presentations at state or regional conferences should give some indication of local activities, and currently, there is only minimal local input at these forums as well.

Many obstacles to successful GIS implementation have been identified through individual case studies that appear in conference proceedings or trade publications. Croswell (1991) completed a content analysis of 39 of these sources to develop a matrix of common system-implementation problems. The obstacles were coded into 11 groups and ranked based on the number of times the obstacle group was identified as a major or secondary obstacle in the articles. The top three obstacle groups include:

Ventura (1995) more closely examines issues associated with the use of GIS in local government. A key observation is that early system use in local government is often limited to inventory applications, based on simple query and display functionality of GIS software. Very few local governments have advanced to analysis-and-management applications that take full advantage of the spatial analysis and modeling capabilities associated with GIS software.

Teaching the Application of GIS to Coastal Management

To overcome obstacles to coastal GIS implementation in local governments, the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute and UW-Madison's Land Information and Computer Graphics Facility (LICGF) formed a partnership in 1995. The purpose: to improve local coastal decision-making by teaching the use of GIS software and its application to coastal issues. Specifically, the goal of the collaborative project is to teach the application of GIS and related technologies to local government staff and officials to aid them in moving towards the sustainable management of Great Lakes coastal resources.

Training workshops and teaching models of GIS coastal applications form the core of the project. Coastal GIS workshops are designed to first teach local/state professionals the fundamentals of GIS tools, and then how to use the tools to address coastal issues. The 16-hour workshops are held at the Land Information and Computer Graphics Facility (LICGF) on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Because training funds are very limited for government professionals, the UW-Madison offers an economical package that includes instruction, local housing and meals. The package enables all coastal counties to participate.

A maximum of 12 workshop participants spend the first day and one-half learning basic desktop GIS functionality. Specific exercises cover data input and integration, linking attribute data and spatial data, spatial query and analysis, map creation, address matching, and integration of vector and image data.

Instructors use illustrative "teaching models." The models, built from local databases may contain fictitious data to illustrate a concept in addressing an issue, or to demonstrate computer functionality. The goal is to illustrate how GIS can be applied to an array of coastal issues. The models provide a detailed step-by-step process for applying GIS to common coastal problems. In addition, detailed instructions are provided for each specific application in an instruction manual, which will also be placed on Sea Grant's coastal GIS Web site. All local GIS professionals can access the instructions on the Web as a self-teaching tool.

A Three-Phase Structure

The Sea Grant-LICGF project has three phases, each increasing in the complexity of coastal management and computer functionality (see Figure 1).

Phase 1: Addressing Public Concerns

For the first phase, teaching models are being developed that demonstrate how GIS can address specific coastal issues, e.g., shoreland management and coastal erosion. Models will be simple, routine, and comprehensible. The following list outlines Wisconsin coastal issues. Teaching models that have been completed or are currently being developed are identified as follows: (C) completed; (U) under development; or (F) future development.

Air and water quality

Special environments

Shore development

Phase 2: The Challenge of Integrated Coastal Management

While the above models help address singular issues, the key to coastal management and sustainable use of coastal resources is the integration of all public interests into a single, ever-evolving management strategy. Drawing from existing literature and decision-support systems, this phase will promote interfaces that link GIS information to decision-makers -- both formal and informal. Such interfaces should allow:

As in phase one, teaching models will be developed to illustrate concepts.

Phase 3: The Future of Coastal Management Systems

The third phase focuses on monitoring systems that feed back into the management process to provide a dynamic management interaction. Feed-back mechanisms could range from in situ instruments measuring water or air quality, remote sensors used to periodically observe such things as the location of the bluff edge or forest cover, demographic information on the population, or statistical data of agricultural productivity. Such information could then be compared to previous conditions to measure rates of change, or to observe undesirable conditions - leading to public awareness, discussion and possible modifications of management plans.

The Coastal GIS project will incorporate evolving ideas from the professional GIS community. Developing new tools is not the primary purpose of the project. The focus is to teach the application of GIS tools to coastal management. Doing so will accelerate the transfer of emerging technology to Wisconsin's local governments and citizens.


Campbell, H. and I. Masser. 1995. GIS and Organizations: How Effective are GIS in Practice?
London: Taylor & Francis.

Croswell, P. 1991. Obstacles to GIS Implementation and Guidelines to Increase the Opportunities for Success"
URISA Journal. Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 43-56.

Knecht, R.W., B. Cicin-Sain and G. Fisk. 1996 "Perceptions of the Performance of the State Coastal Zone Management Programs in the United States". Coastal Management. Vol. 24, pp. 141-163.

Larsen, B., J. Clapp, A. Miller, B. Niemann and A. Ziegler. 1978. Land Records: The Cost to the Citizens to Maintain the Present Land Information Base, A Case Study of Wisconsin. Madison, WI: Department of Administration, State of Wisconsin.

Rickman, T. L. and A. H. Miller. 1995. A Categorized Bibliography of Coastal Applications of Geographic Information Systems. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute and Land Information and Computer Graphics Facility, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Ventura, S. 1995. "The Use of Geographic Information Systems in Local Government"
Public Administration Review. Vol. 55, No. 5 (September/October, 1995), pp. 461-467.

Wisconsin, Department of Administration. 1987. Wisconsin Coastal Management Program for the Great Lakes: 1987 Update.

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Last modified by David Hart on August 30, 2000