Project History

The Explore Natural Communities website was inspired by a desire to share the wealth of information that has come out of a joint vegetation classification and mapping project of the National Park Service and NatureServe.

For many years, NatureServe and the National Park Service (NPS) have collaborated to describe, classify, and map the natural communities in national park units across the country. They use a federal standard for classifying and mapping vegetation called the U.S. National Vegetation Classification (USNVC).1  2 Vegetation is also classified within the International Terrestrial Ecological System Classification (or ITESC).3

The process typically begins with a review of existing vegetation information to plan and prioritize collection of new information. If recent aerial imagery is not available for the study area (park), new imagery is acquired and converted into a 3D format (digital stereo pairs). Many other geographic and spatial datasets may be acquired including those depicting elevation, soils, geology, vegetation height, and disturbances. A geographic information system (GIS) is used to compile and analyze this information to identify data gaps, and plan and prioritize field work. Ecologists spend many intensive hours in the field collecting data on the vegetation—specifically, what plants are growing in what combinations where. Based on their field work, ecologists use statistical tools to categorize (classify) the vegetation into plant communities. Ecologists study the aerial photographs and other geographic data and compare what they see in the imagery with what they saw at specific places on the ground. Putting it all together in a process called photo interpretation, they create detailed maps showing the location of plant communities in the landscape. More field work assesses the accuracy of the map. (See Patterns in Nature under Ecology Basics to explore more about classifying and mapping.)

In the early 2000's, NatureServe and NPS classified and mapped the plant communities of the 11 parks units in the National Park Service's National Capital Region.

back to top

Sharing the Information

Now, with support from a partnership between NatureServe and the Research Learning Alliance program of the NPS National Capital Region, this website takes the next intuitive step of making this scientific information accessible to both NPS staff and park visitors. The first park to be included was Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.

Imagine all the fascinating information that comes out of the process of classifying and mapping the plant communities of a park! The mapping process highlights the plants, but in reality a plant community is much more than just plants. It has become what it is because of the interactions among the living inhabitants, the lay of the land, available water, and much more. So this website refers more broadly to Natural Communities, and spreads the limelight to the many movers and shakers of natural communities—Plants, Animals, Physical setting (soils, bedrock, topography, water, size of the community), Natural Processes, Water & Land Use, Climate & Weather, and Ecological Threats.

back to top


Explore Natural Communities was created with these goals in mind:

  • Provide user-friendly content for park managers and interpreters
  • Facilitate informed conservation and natural resource management
  • Build awareness among the public about our nation’s important natural resources
  • Enrich visitors’ experiences
  • Provide place-based access to vegetation mapping data and related information

back to top