Category Archives: Land

Sightsmap plots most photographed places on planet

Governments around the world protect places for a variety of reasons. There are landscapes set aside for critters and memorials to fallen warriors. In the United States and elsewhere, one of the biggest motivations for creating national parks and other preserves is that they’re pretty to look at and photograph.

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but aesthetics and scenic vistas also figure prominently in things like environmental impact statements. Is there a way to quantify how photogenic or beautiful a spot is?

Sightsmap is the closest thing I’ve found. Using data from photos uploaded and geotagged in Panoramio, a popular photo sharing service acquired by Google in 2007, Sightsmap generates high-resolution heat maps that illustrate the number of photos snapped at sites around the world. Below are global and U.S. maps (click to enlarge, and see this gallery for more maps).

Sightsmap World
Sightsmap United States
United States

Panoramio already has more than 100,000,000 images, but its photos represent just a tiny fraction of the millions of images captured every day on Earth. Data from Panoramio’s sample isn’t representative. Among other biases, the service appears particularly popular in Europe, and there are data quality issues I note below. Despite these limitations, Sightsmap tells some interesting stories about how we travel and photograph the world around us.

Some popular unpopulated places

As you would expect, more populated places tend to have more photographs on Sightsmap, but there are plenty of hotspots in unpopulated parts of the American West (and other regions). The map below shows that Southern Utah, one of the least populated places in the continental United States, is also one of the most photographed because it’s home to so many national parks and tourist attractions.

Most photographed places Southern UtahSightsmap allows you to drill down and show the density of photographs at a very high resolution. Once you’re zoomed in close enough, you can also see thumbnails of the images. Below is the heat map for the area around Delicate Arch, in Arches National Park, plus a photo of me in that spot.

Sightsmap Delicate Arch, Utah
Delicate Arch, Utah


Delicate Arch, Utah.
The author at work. Delicate Arch, Utah.

National parks: most visitors stick to roads

Look at the photo heat maps for national parks and you’ll see a pattern familiar to any ranger or frequent visitor: people tend to stick to the roads and pavement. Below is the Sightsmap for Yellowstone National Park.

Sightsmap Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park

Tourists and photographers also tend to concentrate in just a few parts of Western states and cities. Below is a map of the state of Wyoming. Virtually all of the activity on Sightsmap is focused in the northwest portion of the state, home to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Other hotspots are the Wind River Range and the Bighorn Mountains (where I photographed the sunset that appears in the EcoWest banner).

Sightsmap Wyoming

Even in a tourist mecca like the San Francisco Bay Area, where I suspect there are plenty of residents geotagging/uploading their photos, the heat maps show that certain areas are much more photogenic than others. A closeup of the 49-square-mile city of San Francisco reveals hotspots around sites such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Transamerica Pyramid, plus a fair number of shots taken on San Francisco Bay, but relatively few photos in the city’s western neighborhoods.

Sightsmap Bay Area
San Francisco Bay Area
Sightsmap SF
San Francisco

Restricted access: blank spots on the map

When I created human footprint maps, I was especially interested in the blank spaces where impacts were minimal. Likewise, I was instantly drawn to areas on Sightsmap where few or no photographs had been posted.

Below are two maps of the Korean Peninsula: I created the first using Sightsmap; the second was snapped by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station.

Sightsmap Korea
Photo heat map of Korean Peninsula

Night lights on the Korean Peninsula. Source: NASA/ISS
Night lights on the Korean Peninsula. Source: NASA/ISS

It’s easy to pick on North Korea, but we also have plenty of places in our own country where public access is prohibited. Below is a Sightsmap view of the area around Las Vegas, which includes a number of military installations to the northwest of the city that are annotated in the second map.

Sightsmap Las Vegas

Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

I was curious if there were photos of the fabled Area 51, the military installation that is ground zero for UFO folklore and assorted conspiracy theories. Sightsmap shows some grainy images of the facility that legitimately look like they were captured by photographers zooming in from surrounding mountains, plus some photos that appear to be from a tour. But there’s also this garbage image below, which someone uploaded and geotagged at Area 51, so Sightsmap surely has some questionable data.

Area 51 Sightsmap

Like any crowdsourced endeavor, Sightsmap is only as good as the data that users share and tag. Despite its flaws, I found these heat maps fascinating to explore. I could imagine them being useful not only to photographers who are plotting where to set up their tripods, but also to city planners and land managers trying to understand patterns in visitor use.

Data sources

Here’s a description from Sightsmap:

The heatmap shows the places people like, based on the number of panoramio photos at each place in the world. The dark areas have few photos, the red areas have more and the yellow areas have a large number of photos geotagged. The hottest places have markers linking photos, Streetview, Wikipedia, Wikivoyage, Foursquare and Google Plus articles about the site. The place names are selected by the Wikipedia readership numbers and foursquare checkins. Area populations are based on the geonames database. Street level heatmaps are available for [the] top 15,000 places in the world, sorted by the number of photos in an area of a size of a few square kilometers around the place center. The popularity ranking of places in high-res area maps is computed by combining place hotness with popularity rankings from Wikipedia, Foursquare and real-time Google Places selection.

EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

LandScope America: a tool to visualize land conservation

If you want to visualize your favorite wilderness area or map the protected areas in your city, LandScope America provides a free and convenient resource. This user-friendly GIS tool, a collaborative project of NatureServe and the National Geographic Society, lets you explore protected lands across the country, create maps of conservation projects, and share your work with others.

LandScope Screenshot

Key features of LandScope America

The focal point of LandScope America is an interactive map that overlays data layers, photos, and user-contributed stories. The map includes three key elements:

  • Base maps: three options (street, satellite, or hybrid) are found at the upper-right corner.
  • Themes: these comprise the spatial data that overlay the base map. Options include conservation priorities, protected areas, threats, plants and animals, and ecosystems. Users can change the theme by selecting the drop-down menu in the upper-left corner.

Diverse range of target audiences

One of the key advantages of LandScope America is its versatility for different user groups. Audiences that can benefit from the resource include:

  • Public agencies: In a recent post, we noted that $39 billion is spent annually on conservation in the United States. Public agencies could increase their effectiveness by combining the conservation priorities of public and private organizations in a single map layer. For example, agencies might overlay The Nature Conservancy’s ecoregional priorities with State Wildlife Action Plans and regional greenprints to better understand the level of coordination between various groups.
  • Land trusts: Using the mapping platform, land trusts can create, share, and print maps of conservation projects. For organizations on a tight budget, LandScope America can provide a powerful alternative to expensive GIS packages.
  • Private landowners: For farmers, ranchers, and private timberland owners, LandScope America features useful resources on options and financial incentives for conserving land. Using the map, landowners can see how their property fits into the wider ecological context and learn how providing wildlife habitat can make them eligible for incentive programs such as the Forest Land Enhancement Program.

Mapping in practice

As an example, I mapped how changes in housing density around Denver relate to key wildlife habitat. The following three maps show the rapid rate of projected growth emanating from the city’s center.

The next map shows important nesting areas and wildlife habitat in Colorado. Land trusts and public agencies could use similar maps to understand how projected human development may encroach upon habitat.

Public expenditures in conservation

I also experimented with the map’s “Conservation by the Numbers” scorecards to examine trends in conservation spending across the West. This data is drawn from the Trust for Public Land’s Conservation Almanac, which tracks acres protected and dollars spent using public funding to buy land for parks and open space, during the time period 1998-2005.

Examining total spending on conservation, we see that California is the largest aggregate spender, with an annual average of $363 million spent on parks and open space protection. Wyoming has the lowest public expenditures, with $2.2 million spent annually on conservation funding. Montana has highest per capita public investments in conservation—roughly $179 per person. On the other end, Nevada spends only $13 per person on conservation. Below is an image from a dashboard we created to visualize the data.

Conservation spending dashboardA wide variety of factors, however, influence the cost of protecting land in a given state. In Washington, it costs an average of $2,044 to conserve an acre of land, but only $14 per acre conserved in Idaho. Several variables could explain this wide gap, including differences in land prices and development pressures. Washington’s high costs may also reflect some high-value acquisitions during the period in question.

Explore beyond your backyard, both near and far

LandScope America also lets you discover and explore open spaces near your own home. Just enter a zip code to find parks and nature preserves, as well as the names of conservation organizations working in the area.

In addition, LandScope America exposes users to more remote wilderness areas through photographs, audio, video, and articles embedded directly in the maps.

Explore your favorite places in the West using LandScope America, and let us know what you learn.


EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

Timber harvest falls in national forests

Logging on national forests, many of them located in the West, is a shadow of its former self. One of the clearest trends we found in our research was the decline in the timber harvest reported by the U.S. Forest Service, as shown in the graphic below (click to enlarge) and on our forestry dashboard.

Forest service harvest

Prior to creation of the Forest Service in 1905, the activity was largely unregulated in the West. After World War II, harvest rates increased significantly, but starting in the late 1970s, environmental regulations and international competition led to dramatic decreases in the amount of timber coming off public lands. Passage of the National Forest Management Act of 1976 and restrictions related to the spotted owl in the 1990s led to major reductions in clear-cutting and other harmful practices.

Interactive dashboard from Headwaters

To learn more about public lands logging, check out the great dashboard that Headwaters Economics has developed. Although the data only goes back to 1980, the dashboard illustrates the timber harvest in each state, national forest, and U.S. Forest Service region.

In the screenshot below, I’ve highlighted Oregon’s Willamette National Forest. You can see a pretty stunning drop in logging starting around 1990, which is mirrored in other national forests in the region.

Source: Headwaters Economics
Source: Headwaters Economics

I was curious whether the timber harvest had also fallen as precipitously in places where there aren’t any spotted owls. The screenshot below highlights logging on national forests in Montana, which also declined, but not as sharply as in the West Coast states.

Source: Headwaters Economics
Source: Headwaters Economics

National forests aren’t the only places where logging takes place in the West. Especially along the Pacific Coast, there’s a ton of private and state land that’s actively logged. Some timber harvests also take place on tribal and BLM land. While national forests account for a big piece of the pie, it would be interesting to see whether the same trends are playing out on other lands in the West.

Data sources

The U.S. Forest Service provides historical data on harvests in this document and on this page. Headwaters Economics offers free downloads of the data in its interactive dashboard and provides more details on the data here.


EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.