The Washington Post

Helping coastal communities plan for development and protect resources

When coastal communities need to understand the impact of sea level changes, make plans for new roads and development, identify vulnerable wetlands or chart the best evacuation routes in the event of a hurricane, they can turn to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Nicholas Schmidt.

As geospatial services division chief of NOAA’s Coastal Services Center, Schmidt has helped create the Digital Coastal Initiative, a web-based resource that provides detailed maps, data, tools and training to help local, county state and regional planners more effectively understand and manage their coastal resources.

“We are driven by our mission to support the well-being of coastal environment,” said Schmidt. “We have created a platform for coastal resource managers to make informed decisions.”

With coastal communities facing pressures from population growth and development, there has been a greater need for more accurate aerial mapping and a better understanding of what has been taking place over time. NOAA’s Digital Coastal Initiative provides land-and marine-based geospatial data that can be used by surveying and mapping professionals to create detailed coastal maps, allowing planners to explore development options and understand trends to help make sound judgments.

For example, the Oregon Coastal Management Program, in partnership with the NOAA Coastal Services Center, used Digital Coastal data to create a geospatial inventory of dikes and levees in Oregon’s major estuaries. The inventory is being used to prioritize wetland restoration projects and predict changes to marshes and the coast under various sea level rise scenarios.

Nicholas Schmidt of NOAA's Coastal Services Center (Frank Ruoppoli)

In Maine, planners used the NOAA data and tools to identify suitable habitat for the endangered New England cottontail. The results were used to determine areas that should be monitored during winter months and potentially conserved for the long-term management of this critical species. Hawaii used high-resolution land cover data to identify high-priority urban forests, which enhance the health of coastal ecosystems and the resilience of coastal communities. The data is being used to develop a set of long-term management activities.

And in Delaware, state officials used high-resolution elevation data to generate maps showing the possible impacts of inundation using three different sea level rise scenarios. The maps formed the basis of a sea level rise adaptation policy that is guiding development decisions in Delaware’s coastal zone.

Colleagues said Schmidt had the vision, now realized through years of hard work, to make critical coastal and ocean geospatial data accessible, understandable, integrated, and freely distributed to those working and living in the coastal communities.

“The Digital Coastal Initiative would not exist as it does today without Miki Schmidt’s work, vision and guidance,” said Bill Burgess of the National States Geographic Information Council. “It’s fair to say that he is the primary driver behind this important initiative.”

Nick Palatiello, executive director of the Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors, said Schmidt has played a central role in forging partnerships among state and local governments, environmental organizations and the private sector.

Palatiello, who represents firms in the surveying, spatial data and geographic information systems field, said Schmidt is collaborative, has built trust among the various parties and has facilitated both “economic development and environmental balance in America’s coastal communities.”

Schmidt said decisions about land use in coastal regions are sometimes made with “bad information or no information at all.” He said his program helps planners get a clearer picture of their communities as well as the choices and the risks that they face.

“I feel like we are in the trenches with our constituents, fighting the fight and providing the services that make our coastal communities more resilient,” said Schmidt.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and Go to to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal and to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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