California Native Plant Society

Vegetation Program

The mission of the CNPS Vegetation Program is to develop and disseminate quantifiable definitions of all types of vegetation in California. These definitions will be used to promote science-based conservation at the natural community and ecosystem level throughout the State.

The principal goals of the Vegetation Program are to develop, promote, and maintain a uniform vegetation classification that will be adopted by private, state, and federal resource agencies with jurisdiction over land management, and to develop defensible definitions of the rare vegetation of the state.


A Case Statement for the CNPS Vegetation Program

Current increase in interest in vegetation and ecosystem conservation stems from the need to step away from eleventh-hour, single-species conservation approaches and move toward a proactive response -- conserving the broad umbrella of habitat and community around sensitive, threatened, or endangered species. This "coarse filter" approach assumes that the vegetation stand is the signpost for the biological environment in which any individual species is embedded. If species are to be protected, then so must be the surrounding environment.

Giant Sequoia Series photo by Todd Keeler-Wolf

In addition to the usefulness of vegetation as a surrogate for ecosystems in which occur rare species, vegetation also has its own intrinsic patterns of rarity. Unique and unusual stands of vegetation occur throughout California. These may be dominated by rare species, composed of unusual mixes of common species, or may be structurally rare as a result of non-natural impacts (e.g., several types of old growth forest). The Vegetation Program recognizes the value of identifying and conserving these rare vegetation patterns.

Aside from rarity issues, vegetation is the best single expression of the range of ecological variation that can be described and depicted in maps across any landscape. A unified quantifiable vegetation classification can thus capture this full range of variability. This expression of biodiversity can then be used in conservation planning to insure the representation of all ecosystems, common-to-rare.

The Program is developing a foundation to shift conservation emphasis from a single species approach to a landscape approach that encompasses groups of species, vegetation, and ecosystems while continuing to incorporate the need for rare and endangered species conservation and management. Viewing and describing landscapes within the framework of a unified vegetation classification provides the common language necessary for managers to make informed decisions.

Since its inception twenty years ago, the Vegetation Program has established a vegetation classification system that already has become the standard for interpreting statewide vegetation patterns and for initiating local and regional ecological assessments.

Facts About California's Vegetation

California has the most diverse vegetation of any state in the Nation. As with its flora, this diversity arises as a result of topography, unique climate, geology, and ecological isolation that fosters evolution of species and the concomitant development of unique patterns of vegetation across the state.

Although the taxonomy of vegetation is not as well defined and static as that of plants, and there are many more types to be defined and revisions to current alliances and associations to be made, it is clear that California holds a wealth of vegetation. Currently 435 vegetation alliances are recognized from California and within those over 1200 vegetation associations exist. This compares to only 2000 associations throughout the entire 10 western state region.

Program Overview

The Vegetation program had its origins in 1990 when a small ad hoc subcommittee of the CNPS Rare Plant Program proposed a parallel program to develop comparable information about California's plant communities. The following year Professor Michael Barbour was invited to chair the committee (known first as the Plant Communities Committee and now as the Vegetation Committee). He established a group of about 25 individuals from academia, conservation organizations, environmental consulting companies, and state and federal agencies. Following four years of work by the committee the book A Manual of California Vegetation (MCV) was published by CNPS. This book is the first edition of the State vegetation classification that the Program has adopted. Recognizing the paucity of quantitative field data to support the definitions of vegetation types throughout much of the State, the Program has developed vegetation sampling protocols and has trained numerous volunteers and agency staff in their use.

The vegetation program serves as a nexus for the accumulation and dissemination of information about California vegetation. It coordinates a range of volunteer and agency involvement in vegetation conservation from grass roots field sampling by local CNPS chapters, to focused work on individual vegetation types requiring definition, to multi-agency coordinated projects for broad scale mapping and classification of vegetation. The program's principal responsibility is the maintenance and development of the CNPS vegetation classification which is embodied in the MCV. It also is responsible for coordinating and integrating ecological sampling information on vegetation throughout the state.

The Program has developed digital databases known as the California Vegetation Information System (CVIS) and the Rapid Assessment database to accomplish these goals. CVIS consists of two parts: a sampling database, which archives the vegetation samples collected by CNPS and other agencies and organizations, and the Classification Database, which houses the information on the descriptions of each of the vegetation types identified in the MCV. By the end of 2009, we expect that Program staff and associates have entered in over 10,000 individual samples for the CVIS database. The Rapid Assessment method also has its own database to archive vegetation samples, providing additional species, environmental and site quality information to characterize vegetation and habitats.

"A Manual of California Vegetation"

The first edition of the manual, published in 1995, has filled a long awaited void in California resource management. It has been adopted as the standard vegetation classification by state and federal agencies such as The California Department of Fish and Game, The United States Forest Service, National Park Service, and United States Geological Survey. It is now also the standard reference for vegetation used by consulting firms and planners.

Please click on the following link for more information on A Manual of California Vegetation.

Program Staff and Leadership

The Chair of the Vegetation Committee is the principal guide of the direction and goals of the Program. The Current Chair, Dr. Todd Keeler-Wolf is the vegetation ecologist with the Natural Diversity DataBase of the Department of Fish and Game's Wildlife and Habitat Data Analysis Branch. Dr. Keeler-Wolf and Dr. John Sawyer of Humboldt State University are the co-authors of the first edition of the Manual. Mr. Bruce Bingham of the U.S. Forest Service has provided his time to develop the CVIS database.

Through cooperation with the Department of Fish and Game, the US Forest Service, and Humboldt State University, the Program has been able to make use of some members of the Vegetation Committee's professional time to accomplish many of the goals we have already attained.

The Program hired Ms. Julie M. Evens as its first staff Vegetation Ecologist in April of 2001, who is now the acting Program Director. Ms. Evens has earned an MA at Humboldt State University, with research on vegetation patterns in the eastern Mojave Desert. Her work for CNPS includes training the public on vegetation sampling methods, promoting awareness of local vegetation types, and coordinating vegetation projects with agencies and chapters to identify, describe, and map vegetation. Ms. Evens and other program staff help expand knowledge in local and regional areas on the distribution, quality, and rarity of vegetation in order to further preservation of native plants and natural habitats across California.


Clearly, the Vegetation Program relies heavily on volunteer participation. All members of the Vegetation Committee are volunteers. In addition, much of the information accumulated via vegetation sampling has been accomplished by volunteer efforts of CNPS chapter members. Each CNPS chapter has a vegetation coordinator who works with the leadership of the committee to develop vegetation sampling goals.

Further, chapter members are welcome to participate with on-going vegetation projects and sampling efforts of many chapters, including the Dorothy King Young, East Bay and San Diego Chapters. Please contact the local chapters directly or the Vegetation Program staff about these and other exciting projects.

Learn more: What does a CNPS Chapter Vegetation Chair do?

Relationship with the California Department of Fish and Game

In addition to the obvious link with the Committee Chair, DFG has provided a forum for legitimizing the state and federal agency activities of the CNPS Vegetation Program and the classification it has developed. The Vegetation Classification and Mapping Program (VegCAMP) and Natural Diversity Data Base (CNDDB) of the Department are currently undergoing revisions to reflect updates of the CNPS Classification. Natural community records in the CNDDB will be revised to meet the standards of the new classification. The rarity and threat ranking of natural communities used by the CNDDB are applied to all of the vegetation types in the CNPS classification, thus making the CNPS, VegCAMP and CNDDB classifications one-and-the-same.

Through the DFG, the methodologies CNPS has developed have become part of several large projects including classification and mapping of vegetation at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Yosemite National Park, The Northern and Eastern Colorado Desert, the Upper Sacramento River Watershed, and about 12 million acres of the Mojave Desert Ecoregion. Data entry for the CVIS data base has been supported by the hiring of limited term scientific aids by DFG.

Relationship with Other State and Federal Agencies

The Vegetation Program from its inception, has had cooperation from State and Federal agencies. When the Vegetation Committee was formed, membership was chosen to represent vegetation and/or plant ecologists from each of the major land and natural resource management agencies including DFG, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, State Parks, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Defense, California Department of Forestry, National Park Service, California State University System, University of California System, and Biological Resources Division of U.S. Geological Survey.

This inter-agency cooperation has extended throughout the life of the program and has resulted in several cooperative projects including data entry and development of CVIS through the assistance of the Forest Service, Vegetation mapping projects with State Parks, National Parks, Department of Defense, and USGS Biological Resources Division, and recognition by and cooperation with the State Biodiversity Executive Council and CERES (California Environmental Resources Evaluation System). Currently, the State Biodiversity Council’s Science Coordinating Committee has a Vegetation Theme, who’s members are largely representatives of the CNPS Vegetation Committee.

Work with NatureServe, California Department of Fish and Game, and the Federal Geographic Data Standards Committee has insured the compatibility of the CNPS classification with emerging National standards for vegetation classification.

Support of CNPS Chapters and Programs

Vegetation Committee members regularly provide technical assistance and rare vegetation information to CNPS chapters. The Program conducts State-wide training sessions to familiarize CNPS chapter and other agency representatives with the standardized sampling methodology developed by the committee. Vegetation Committee Chairs have given lectures on the program to a large percentage of the CNPS chapters throughout the state. The committee regularly answers questions regarding location, threats and conservation value for various stands of vegetation throughout the state.

Funding of Program Activities

Funding for Program activities comes from CNPS members, contracts, and grants. CNPS supports the program director, who is a senior vegetation ecologist. With the growth and statewide acceptance and reliance upon the Program, vegetation ecologists and temporary field crews have been hired. Staff supports the development and maintenance of statewide vegetation classification through integration of the latest finding from quantitative sampling and mapping. Staff also works to provide standards for vegetation sampling and classification, assist chapters with sampling, and participate with agencies and other collaborators on vegetation classification and mapping projects.

For more information on Program funding, please contact the CNPS Executive Director at (916) 447-2677.


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