Evaluation of the automated reference toolset as a method to select reference plots for oil and gas reclamation on Colorado Plateau rangelands

TitleEvaluation of the automated reference toolset as a method to select reference plots for oil and gas reclamation on Colorado Plateau rangelands
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsDi Stefano SF, Karl JW, C. Bailey D, Hale S
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
Start Page110578
Date Published04/2020
ARIS Log Number374327
KeywordsLand potential, Model verification, monitoring, oil and gas, reclamation, Reference plot selection

Rangelands are typically characterized by low precipitation and low biomass which makes them susceptible to disturbance and difficult to reclaim. These characteristics become a management issue when considering the widespread and significant impact of oil and gas development on rangelands. Reclamation from this land use involves the complexities of dealing with multiple state and federal agencies, private landowners, and their sometimes conflicting rules. Reference plots (e.g., nearby undisturbed sites) can help with these issues by providing an objective context for reclamation planning. They are selected to provide a comparison that is similar to a reclamation site in most aspects except for the disturbance activity. This allows for the relative condition of the reclamation site to be determined. Because selection of reference plots is normally expert-driven on a site-by-site basis, it can be time consuming and thus ineffective in helping to meet reclamation goals over large landscapes. The Automated Reference Tool (ART) was developed to improve the efficiency and efficacy of reference plot selection. The ART improves reference plot selection through remote sensing and indicators of land potential by selecting reference plots of similar land potential to the reclamation site based on soil texture, topography, and geology. We evaluated the ART in the context of well-pad reclamation to determine if ART selected plots were appropriate to use as reference when compared to an existing reference plot network. We applied the ART to reclamation sites managed by the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) White River Field Office, Colorado which had existing expert-selected reference plots. We found that the ART-selected reference plots and their matching expert-selected reference plot had similar large-scale vegetative cover characteristics (total foliar: R2 ¼ 0.34, p-value ¼ 0.0012) and dissimilar finer-scale cover characteristics (plant diversity: R2 ¼ 0.079, p-value ¼ 0.15). In addition, we detected similarities in their soil water content (R2 ¼ 0.43, p-value<0.001), depth to restricting layer (RMSD ¼ 21.90), and rock fragment (RMSD ¼ 19.99). These results demonstrate that ART could be a useful tool for managers to help meet their reclamation goals over large landscapes, but it is not a complete automation of the reference selection process.