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National Forests Technology

How to Add U.S. Forest Service Boundaries to Google Earth

One of the best parts of the U.S. Forest Service is their online repository of data that is available for the public at no cost.

How can you add U.S. Forest Service Boundaries to Google Earth? The U.S. Forest Service allows for the download of spatial data from the Geospatial Data Discovery tool maintained by ArcGIS. This includes data layers on general boundaries, as well as specific parcel ownership.

Keep reading as we dive into the weeds to go through the different options available when bringing U.S. Forest Service data into Google Earth. We’ll cover the different options available, as well as show step-by-step instructions on how to get it all done.

How to Add U.S. Forest Service Boundaries Into Google Earth

Before we get into the specifics of the different layers, I think it helps to briefly go over some of the terms that I’ll be throwing around in this post.

You might already be familiar, but Google Earth primarily works two proprietary file formats: KML and KMZ. KML stands for Keyhole Markup Language, and you’ll be seeing the .kml and .kmz file extensions a lot when adding files to Google Earth. The .kmz file extension simply refers to a zipped version of .kml, so it may have several .kml files packaged up in a single zipped folder. The files we’ll be working with in the post are .kml files.

The Geospatial Data Discovery Tool is a location where the U.S. Forest Service stores a wide variety of geospatial files free for public use. It’s hosted on the ArcGIS platform that allows you to preview the data and download what you need in a variety of file formats. When you open the Geospatial Data Discovery hub you’ll be taken to a page that looks like this:

You’ll notice a search box at the center of the screenshot. You can directly start searching from there, or you can scroll down and look through the various categories that they have available:

Even if you’re not the kind of person that’s accustomed to digging around open data hubs like this (look, I get that I’m a bit of an odd duck in this regard), I hope you’re intrigued by the wide array of data they have available.

Anyways, back to the task at hand. I’ll be giving you links to the exact data layers that you need in each section, so no need to worry. I just thought it might be helpful to give a little background on this platform first.

Downloading the Approximate Boundaries of the National Forests

I suspect that most of you are going to want to know which individual parcels of land are owned by the U.S. Forest Service, but first we’ll cover a data layer that provides the overall boundaries of the different National Forests and Grasslands. Skip on ahead to the next section of you’re looking for the data layer with the individual parcels.

First, we’re going to open up the Forest Administrative Boundaries layer in GDD. You’ll be greeted with a page that looks something like this:

You’ll notice that I’ve added boxes to highlight two different parts of the screen. First, you’ll see a map in the background that shows all of the different National Forests present in this layer. Second, you’ll notice that there’s a ‘Download’ button with a drop-down menu in the bottom-right portion.

If you explore the map, you might recognize that the shapes on the screen are the general boundaries of the National Forests throughout the United States. These boundaries don’t represent the actual parcels of land owned by the U.S. Forest Service. This might be an obvious point for some, but I think it’s worth pointing out.

To download the Google Earth version of this layer, first click on the ‘Download’ button as seen here:

Then click on the ‘KML’ option found in the ‘Full Dataset’ part of the drop-down menu. This file is a little bit on the large side at 75 MB, but it shouldn’t take too long. Once the download is finished, you can head over to Google Earth and click the ‘Open’ option from the ‘File’ menu:

Then you can navigate to the .kml file you just downloaded and then you can double-click or click the ‘Open’ button to add this layer to your ‘Temporary Places’ folder in Google Earth.

The default styling in Google Earth will likely be fine for your purposes, but if you’re interested in changing the styling, check out below for more details.

You can learn more about each of the units highlighted on the map by clicking anywhere inside the boundaries. This should bring up a info box that looks something like this:

Here you can see the name of the National Forest, as well as the acreage and other attributes of the shape. I believe that the shape area and length are tied to the boundary and not to the National Forest itself, so you can probably disregard that information.

Finding the Actual Parcels Owned by the U.S. Forest Service

Now we get to the good stuff. I’m assuming most are like myself and can make more use out knowing which parcels the U.S. Forest Service actually owns, so here we’ll dive into that.

To get this information we’re going to open the ‘Surface Ownership Parcels, detailed’ layer from GDD. After opening that link you should see something like this:

You’ll notice right away that this dataset is much larger than the last one. First, you can see right below the layer name that there are more than 115,000 records in this dataset, so there’s a lot more going on here. Naturally, this means that this data layer is much larger than the past layer, as it comes in at a whopping 470 MB at the time of writing.

This might be too much for some to download, but you can get an idea of why it’s so useful just by zooming in to an area that you know has a National Forest. You’ll be greeted by something like this:

Here you can see that this layer covers more than a general boundary; it instead shows each individual parcel of land that is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Once you zoom in to your area, you can check out the ‘Data’ tab by clicking here:

You’ll then see something like this:

This essentially is a data table showing the parcels that are visible on your screen at the time. This data layer has many data fields that are available, but you can see that this is a pretty neat bit of information about the history of the National Forests.

One quick thing to note before moving on: the ‘Download’ button does indicate that it’s possible to download your filtered dataset from the GDD, but I’ve had no luck doing this. I’ve tried two different computers, and each time the download button just spun and never produced a filtered file. So I believe it is only possible to download the full dataset.

You can download this full dataset by using the same option as before, just by clicking the ‘KML’ option in the Download menu just like so:

This will initiate the download for the entire data layer, and it may take awhile depending on the speed of your internet connection.

Adding the U.S. Forest Service Parcels into Google Earth

Now that you have the full dataset downloaded from the Geospatial Data Discovery hub, you can add it into Google Earth with the File –> Open option in the main menu.

Be aware that this is a rather large file for Google Earth to process. I’m running this on a desktop computer that has a lot of RAM and Google Earth definitely struggled a bit. Once you’ve managed to add this data layer to Google Earth (it might take awhile), you should see something like this:

You can see that my version of Google Earth is definitely struggling a bit. Given that, it will probably be best to disable this layer by unchecking the box in the Places menu on the left like so:

Then zoom in to your local area before enabling the layer again. Assuming that your local area has land that is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, you should see something like this:

All of the red lines represent the borders of parcels of land that are owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Admittedly, this is a bit of a mess to look at, but we’re going to show how you can clean it up next.

Altering the Styling in Google Earth for Ease of Use

In its current format it’s a bit difficult to distinguish the exact ownership of the lands, so we’re going to add some styling to make it more obvious. First, go over to your data layer and then right-click to bring up the following menu:

Click the ‘Properties’ menu item and then you should see something similar to this:

Click the ‘Style, Color’ tab that’s pointed out in the above image. In that tab, click the ‘Share Style’ button and then you’ll have to adjust the opacity. Assuming that your Google Earth is behaving like mine, your parcels might have adjusted to include a fill with 100% opacity. That’s not really what we want, so you can then adjust the opacity to something like 15% like so:

It take a little while for Google Earth to process that adjustment, but once it is done processing you should see something like this:

This will make it much easier to distinguish between private parcels and those owned by the U.S. Forest Service. From here you can click around to bring up more information about the different National Forest parcels. When you click you’ll be greeted with an info box that looks something like this:

This is definitely a bit of a mess, but you can see that there’s some cool info in there. For example, this parcel was sold to the Forest Service in April 1934 by a Hines Hardwood & Hemlock Company.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully you enjoyed this post and managed to get everything to work on your end. I think it’s pretty great that the Forest Service provides all of this information for free, and I think it’s really valuable to a lot of people.

If you found this post enjoyable and are interested in similar posts, feel free to check out any of the following:

By Drew Meulemans

I've long admired forests and devote much energy to learning about them and exploring. I enjoy sharing what I learn and wish to inspire others to do the same.