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Block Checklist Project

Intermountain Region Block Checklist Project

A project coordinating the UVU Herbarium with the members of the Intermountain Virtual Herbarium Network for the creation of
an innovative application for the Virtual Herbarium

By J. A. Alexander
April 2009


     A "block checklist" project is a term with which only a few have familiarity. I was introduced to this type of floristic project as a master's degree student working for Scott Sundberg, former Director of the Oregon Flora Project (OFP) at Oregon State University (OSU) in Corvallis. Scott's plans for the OFP were incredibly innovative and ahead of the technology of the late 1990s. Nearly a decade ago, Scott divided Oregon into square regions he called "blocks" and ported them into a GIS Shapefile. His goal was to utilize his extensive network of OFP volunteers to guide herbarium collection efforts into regions that were the least represented. He initiated the first block checklist project with a few volunteers who each adopted a particular block in the state. These adoptees were responsible for the production of a checklist for the block and to guide collection trips into areas to collect vouchers for species not on the block list. Unfortunately, Scott passed away in January of 2005 and never saw the finished results of his innovative projects. Sadly, the OFP block checklist is one that has not been revived.

     Scott's enthusiasm for floristics was a positive influence on my endeavors at OSU and have continued to be to this day. A special acknowledgement and dedication is due to Scott Sundberg, Linda Hardison, and the hard working volunteers at the OFP. I hope that this project inspires them to reinvigorate their own block project activities.

     The Intermountain Region Block Checklist Project is not the first to undertake the task of mapping the distribution of plant species in Utah. The Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Utah by B.J. Albee, L.M. Shultz, and S. Goodrich, published by the Utah Museum of Natural History in 1988, originated as a hardcopy set of maps produced by hand from examining 300,000 - 400,000 specimens determined by authorities in Utah floristics (see Ramsey et al., 1995 and Shultz et al., 2004). Those maps were hand digitized to form the current online digital atlas. The Atlas and its recent digital offspring (Intermountain Region Digital Image Archive Center's version of the Digital Atlas with a custom mapping interface, an improvement to the original Digital Atlas' more standardized maps) are pioneering and monumental projects that will remain one of the finest examples of floristic mapping. Unfortunately, the Atlas will become a legacy database once the Intermountain Virtual Herbarium is underway. Since most of the dots were digitized from maps published in 1988, it is a resource that is separate from the herbaria from which it was derived and based on specimens collected nearly two decades or more ago. Over time, the authors have added data as new species are described and new localities are discovered. However, there is currently no process for reviewing the determination of a specimen (or specimens) that represent a particular "dot," which is necessary as the concept of species boundaries evolve over time. Any taxonomic change seems to change the determinations of all of the "dots" for a taxon. Additionally, the original map and the digital atlas do not cover infraspecific taxa. The limitations of the Atlas are the result of the technological limitations at the time, and the authors should be commended for their efforts at producing a long-lasting, influential, innovative project.

Project Overview

     With a little over 50,000 records, the current Block project database does not yet encompass the breadth of representation that is covered in the digital Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Utah. Over time, the coverage of the Block Checklist database will grow as the Intermountain Network herbaria are databased and incorporated into the Intermountain Virtual Herbarium. This is the strength of this project. It will grow and incorporate distribution and specimen data as the Intermountain Virtual Herbarium database grows. As NY adds more specimens to their online database, more historical specimens not represented in Utah Herbaria will be added to the database for review. As monographers and specialists determine specimens at Intermountain Network herbaria, the block checklist will be automatically updated with the new determinations. The block checklist project will also have the capability to database and photograph vouchers located in herbaria across North America, through herbarium loans. These specimen data, however, will be more static since most North American herbaria will not be databased for decades.

     The primary goal of the Intermountain Region Block Checklist Project is to identify taxa and regions that are under-represented in Network herbaria. In an era of decreasing budgets, many Network herbaria do not even have directly allocated funds for collecting trips. A few do not even have a full time curator or office manager. By examining the collections in a herbarium, one can easily find the "favorite spots" where the same species have often been collected in relatively the same locality several times a decade over the last fifty years. Often, the state distribution of taxa that are showy, unusual, or uncommon are more completely represented in herbaria than the more widely distributed taxa. Due to shrinking resources, it is not very cost effective to collect specimens in the typical, arbitrary manner. As curators, faculty and herbarium volunteers, we must begin to allocate our valuable time and limited collecting resources to obtaining specimens that have the highest informational content and scientific value. Requiring one voucher collection of each taxon found in a block (and recollected every decade or so), treats all taxa with an equal weight. As a result, a more accurate representation of the distribution of taxa in the state can be obtained than is currently represented in herbaria. Identification of populations with a unique morphology that represents new, endemic specific or infraspecific taxa will be more apparent and reliable with a comprehensive representation of morphological variation sampled from throughout a taxon's distribution. Recollecting a taxon not seen in 10 to 20 years also gives a temporal component to the data. We will have the infrastructure in place to track changes in the species composition of blocks over time, especially if global warming is going to make as big an impact on ecosystems as current models predict.

     Of course, not every herbarium collecting trip can have these goals in mind. Recreational trips and general trips to collect common species for exchange or classes will remain valuable to herbarium staff and volunteers. With Block Checklist information in hand, however, everyone will have quick access to a list of certified and "recent voucher needed" taxa for their destination.

     In January of 2009, as a pilot project, two GIS Shapefiles were generated for Utah. One divides the state into 44 blocks each covering approximately 50 square miles. This format is 2-5X larger than the OFP and the Atlas polygons, however the larger blocks will require fewer volunteers and less time to develop checklists. Due to the larger area covered by each block, this format will likely detect only large changes in species distributions over time. The second divides the state into 82 blocks each covering approximately 30-36 square miles, or 36 Township and Range units. This format is closer in scale to the OFP project. Its finer scale will be more sensitive to changes in species composition over time, and will result in a higher reolution of species distributions. However, it requires more resources and volunteers for checklist development. The final choice of the format for this project will depend on deciding which format best balances long term goals and available resources. During the development of the Utah pilot project, I wrote the following list as a backbone for the overall Intermountain Project. As the project develops, refinement of these goals and methods are expected.

I. Goals

II. Methods

III. Pilot Project Example Checklist

IV. In Development