Conservation Applications of LiDAR

This website provides access to information about and free on-line training modules for use of LiDAR digital elevation data in soil and water conservation applications.

LiDAR, Light Detection and Ranging, is the application of laser reflectance to measure distance to an object or surface. In Minnesota and a growing number of other states, LiDAR equipment mounted on aircraft has been used to provide high resolution digital elevation data for the entire state or portions of the state. LiDAR data, including derivatives like contour maps, digital elevation models, hillshade projections and others are assisting with a wide range of natural resource conservation applications.

Information about and access to Minnesota data is available at the Minnesota Geospatial Information Office. Access to the training modules is provided in the sections below.

Online Learning Resources

2012 Training for GIS and CAD Users

The University of Minnesota Water Resources Center coordinated six training modules on conservation applications of LiDAR between March and August 2012. Modules were taught as a half- or full-day workshop at several locations around Minnesota. Workshop developers and instructors are experts from the University of Minnesota, MN Department of Natural Resources, MN Board of Water and Soil Resources, and US Natural Resources Conservation Service.

No more hands-on training sessions are scheduled. Additional sessions may be considered if requested by a specific user group. If interested, see contact information below under "Further information."

Audience and Prerequisites

The workshops were designed for GIS and CAD users who address natural resource issues. Watershed Districts, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, counties, cities, not-for-profit organizations, private firms, and state and federal agencies were the target audience.

Before attending any of the workshops, participants were expected to have an intermediate skill level with ArcGIS application, including and not limited to importing and managing files and layers, processing geographic data, and a general understanding of raster data processing and management.

The "Basics" module was required before taking any of the other modules. The "Hydrology" module was required before taking the "Wetland Mapping" module.

Workshop Topics

101 Basics of Using LiDAR Data (Prerequisite: Intermediate skill with ArcGIS)

  • Module developed by: Joel Nelson, UM Dept of Soil Water and Climate
  • How data is collected
  • Data properties, coordinate systems, accuracy
  • Identifying and managing errors
  • Where and how to get data
  • File management, file formats, data types
  • Software platforms
  • How to display data
  • Contour

201 Terrain analysis (Prerequisite: Basics of Using LiDAR Data)

  • Module developed by: Joel Nelson (UM Dept of Soil Water and Climate)
  • Calculating and interpreting terrain attributes (e.g.: hillshade, slope, slope shape, aspect, flow accumulation), and integrating ancillary data.

202 Hydrologic applications (Prerequisite: Basics of Using LiDAR Data)

  • Module developed by: Joel Nelson (UM Dept of Soil Water and Climate), Sean Vaughn (MN DNR), Pete Cooper (USDA-NRCS), Peter Mead (USDA-NRCS)
  • Hydrologic conditioning (culverts), floodplain mapping, watershed delineation, delineating inundation areas, depression analysis.

203 Engineering applications

  • Module developed by: Ann Johnson (UM Dept of Civil Engineering), Lea Holter (USDA-NRCS), Karen Bonde (BWSR)
  • Using LiDAR data in AutoCAD, AutoDesk, and Civil 3D. Linking LiDAR and survey data, siting conservation structures, pre-design, stream profiles.

204 Forestry and ecological applications (Prerequisite: Basics of Using LiDAR Data)

  • Module developed by: Paul Bolstad and Andrew Jenks (UM Dept. of Forest Resources)
  • Participants will learn techniques for using LiDAR-derived data to estimate tree heights and canopy density. The instructor will describe the process for combining these metrics with field plot data to estimate woody vegetation and woody biomass.

301 Wetland mapping (Prerequisites: Basics of Using LiDAR Data and Hydrologic Applications)

  • Module developed by: Joe Knight (UM Dept. of Forest Resources)
  • Mapping wetlands using LiDAR-derived topographical information. Terrain indices will be computed from Digital Elevation Modules, showing how water flows and ponds on the landscape, which indicates where conditions may be sufficient to allow for wetland formation. Methods to discriminate topographically wet non-wetlands from actual wetlands will be introduced.

Links and Resources


LiDAR conference
Conservation Applications of LiDAR, a Conference, Rochester, MN June 2009. Agenda and Powerpoint presentations. Includes applications in terrain analysis, conservation practice design, drainage system redesign, soil survey, engineering with CADD, and critical area identification.

LiDAR Applications Workshops
North Dakota, February & March 2010. Agenda and Powerpoint presentations. Includes applications in watershed delineation, precision agriculture, engineering, conservation practice planning, terrain analysis, and soil survey.

Training videos
Training videos for Terrain Analysis, Department of Soil, Water and Climate, University of Minnesota.

Contacts: Conservation Applications of LiDAR (.pdf)

LiDAR Workshop Training Materials
Conservation Applications of LiDAR Slides and Videos

Project Staff: 

Ann Lewandowski, Project Coordinator,, 612-624-6765
Les Everett, Project Manager,, 612-625-6751


This project was funded by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, LCCMR). Read the project summary and final report.

Reports and Publications: 

This web site provides links to information about specific applications. We invite those with information about additional conservation applications to email descriptions and links to: Les Everett, University of Minnesota Water Resources Center,

Using Selective Drainage Methods to Extract Continuous Surface Flow from 1-meter Lidar-Derived Digital Elevation Data.
Abstract of a paper presented at Remote Sensing and Hydrology 2010 Symposium, Jackson Hole, WY

Sensitivity of Modeled Watershed Attributes and Hydrological Outputs to DEM Spatial Resolution.
Abstract of a paper presented at Remote Sensing and Hydrology 2010 Symposium, Jackson Hole, WY

Conservation Practice Planning Using LiDAR Data. Software from Agren:

Staking Terraces Online: A Terrace Layout Program. Poster 56 at annual conference of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, 2010. filelibrary/10ac/Conservation_Innovation_Grants_Show_4E0F581DBF4DD.pdf

Locating Potential Sites for Nutrient Interception Practices in a Tile-Drained Watershed Using Lidar Data. Mark Tomer1, David James1, Jared Bean1, Brian Gelder2 and Thomas Moorman1, (1)USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, Ames, IA, (2)Iowa State University, Ames, IA. American Society of Agronomy Annual Meetings, November 2010. Abstract:

Terrain Control on Soil Organic Carbon Distribution in Loess Soils with Varying Land Cover, Poster presented at the 2010 annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union 
Brent Dalzell, Cinzia Fissore, Ed Nater, Kyungsoo Yoo (UMN dept. of Soil, Water, and Climate)

Variable Width Filter Strips Designed with Terrain Analysis. Thomas Mueller, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY and Michael Dosskey, USDA Forest Service, Lincoln, NE

Modeling Conservation Practices with RUSLE2. Seth Dabney1, Daniel Yoder2 and Dalmo A. N. Vieira1, (1) P.O. Box 1157, USDA-ARS, Oxford, MS (2) University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN. Abstract:

Effects of DEM resolution and source on soil erosion modelling: a case study using the WEPP model. Xinxin Zhang,, Kang-Tsung Chang2 and Qiong Wu, Joan3.Abstract:

Estimating water erosion and sediment yield using GIS, RULSE, and SEDD. C. Fernandez, J.Q. Wu, D.K. McCool, and C.O. Stockle. Abstract and Full Text (.pdf)

Gully erosion modelling and landscape response in the Mbuluzi River catchment of Swaziland. Aleksey Sidorchuka, Michael Märker, Sandro Morettic and Giuliano Rodolfid. Abstract and Full Text (.pdf)

Comparison of gully erosion estimates using airborne and ground-based LiDAR on Santa Cruz Island, California. Perroy, Ryan L. Bookhagen, Bodo. Asner, Gregory. Chadwick, Oliver. Abstract (.pdf)

Effects of DEM Source and Resolution on WEPP Hydrologic and Erosion Simulation: A Case Study of Two Forest Watersheds in Northern Idaho. Zhang, J. Wu, J.Q. Chang, K. Elliot, W. J. Dun, S. Abstract (.pdf)

Topographic modelling of soil moisture conditions: a comparison and verification of two models. Murphy, P.N.C., Ogilvie, J. and Arp, P. Abstract (.pdf)

Factors controlling the spatial distribution of soil piping erosion on loess-derived soils: A case study from central Belgium. Verachtert, E. Van Den Eeckhaut, M. Poesen, J. Deckers, J. Abstract and full text (.pdf)

Identifying critical agricultural areas with three-meter LiDAR elevation data for precision conservation. J.C. Galzki, A.S. Birr, and D.J. Mulla.
Jl Soil and Water Conservation 2011 66(6):423-430.

Improved indexes for targeting placement of buffers of Hortonian runoff. M.G. Dosskey, Z. Qiu, M.J. Helmers, and D.E. Eisenhauer.
Jl Soil and Water Conservation 2011 66(6):362-372.