Getting Started with Vista

Is Vista the right tool for me?

Vista is designed to support planners and managers to conduct conservation planning and integration of conservation with other assessment and planning activities. Moderate GIS skills and subject matter expertise is required to build the database, but most users can be trained in its analytical and planning functions. Because Vista is designed to deliver defensible science-based planning—and thus requires subject-matter expertise—it may at first appear complex to apply.

NatureServe Vista Introductory Videos

No one likes to read software documentation, but spending a little time with the documentation will likely save you hours or even days of frustration. If you prefer hands-on support, NatureServe provides a full array of services that can be customized for your needs.

The first two sections of NatureServe Vista’s user manual offers guidance and examples to help you decide if Vista is the right tool for you.

View Vista User Manual

Frequently Asked Questions?
What do I need to run Vista?
  • esri's ArcGIS with the Spatial Analyst Extension (see the Register/Download page for supported ArcGIS versions)
  • Microsoft .NET 4 (if you need this, it is free from Microsoft. We recommend the standalone installer which can be found at


  •  CPU Speed: 1.0 GHz
  • Hard Disk: Space 100 MB (does not include the required Microsoft .NET framework 2.0)
  • Memory: 512 MB minimum

Recommended Minimum: Project area size and data resolution may increase computing requirements.

  • CPU Speed: 3.0 GHz (multiple cores do not provide a performance boost)
  • Hard Disk Space: 100 times larger than a raster of the scale and extent of the project (historically projects have ranged from 1 GB to 180 GB)
  • Memory: 8 GB
Can I use a sample data set to get acquainted with the software?

The user's manual features a short tutorial that uses our sample dataset from Orange County, Florida. Explore the scenarios, scenario evaluations, and conservation value summaries that are already included with the dataset.

I understand that Vista is both a process and software. Can you help me understand and get started with the process?

Learn about the planning process we recommend for Vista in the introduction of the user's manual. It includes brief descriptions for applying Vista to a variety of common planning and assessment applications. Also take a look at the Guide to Soliciting Expert Input and the spreadsheet tool that we put together to help guide project managers through the process of soliciting expert input, a key part of the planning process.

Remember: every planning project is different. Depending on the nature of your project, some Vista inputs and results will be more important than others. Knowing what's important can help you focus your time and resources. Consider setting up a Vista Support Contract or another NatureServe service to help co-pilot you through some of the steps.

What are some additional resources that can help me expand the Vista's functionality?

Under the Other Useful Tools section we offer links to software that Vista is designed to interoperate with, including Marxan (for spatial planning and optimization) and NOAA's N-SPECT (for water quality). We also offer and continue to build tools that add functionality when used with Vista.

Is Vista only good for biodiversity conservation or can I use it for other kinds of conservation like Green Infrastructure?

The focus of Vista's methodology and software is biodiversity, but the Vista framework has proven flexible and powerful for supporting broader multiple-use, multi-objective planning. First, you can certainly add other culturally valued elements, such as:

  • Historic and archaeological sites
  • Scenic view areas or features
  • Prime agricultural areas and soil types
  • Recreation areas and facilities
  • Environmental justice zones

For muti-objective planning, areas that are capable of supporting non-conservation land uses or features can be input as conservation elements (think of these as the habitat for those land uses). As long as they are also input as scenarios into Vista, you can develop multi-objective solutions that avoid conflict between land uses and conservation features. We will point out, however, that Vista is not designed to address all the suitability concerns for land uses or infrastructure and interoperating Vista with specialized tools for those purposes is recommended.

Bottom line: if you can map the feature of interest and give it the basic input requirements (see question below on requirements), you can include it in a Vista project.

What is the appropriate scale for applications of Vista?

Vista was designed to operate at multiple scales, from small local applications to larger regional ones. Because spatial analysis is sensitive to data resolution, the main issue is whether you have sufficiently precise data to support your scale of analysis. Processing time is also a concern, for very large projects (tens of millions of acres) conducted at fine spatial resolution, expect long processing runs and or use computers capable of such processing.

Can Vista be used for climate change assessment and adaptation planning?

Yes! The Vista model has proven very flexible for incorporating climate change. We have used Vista to assess recent and future trends in climate change (see Vista in Action). You can introduce climate change by including direct (e.g., temperature or precipitation) changes in Vista scenarios or using indirect effects such as sea level rise, changing fire regime, etc. You will need to convene experts to establish how your conservation elements respond to these changes to populate Vista's assessment models; NatureServe's Climate Change Vulnerability Index can be very useful for developing these element responses. You can also use Vista to develop adaptation plans that incorporate mitigation of current stressors and adaptation to climate changes for different timeframes.

What expertise do I need to have in order to effectively use Vista?

Technically, Vista is easy to use for those with basic GIS skills. The skillsets needed to properly develop data and science inputs to Vista are the same as those for comparable planning processes not using Vista. A variety of skills are typically needed in Vista-supported planning processes (as in similar processes without Vista). Individuals may possess more than one skill, so the following list should not be interpreted as representing the number of team members required. Needed skills also depend on the analyses to be performed. A general list of desired skills would include: project coordination and management, geographic information services, data management, ecology, zoology, and non-biological domain expertise such as land use planning, infrastructure planning, public land management, etc.

How long would it take for my organization to get initial results using Vista?

By far, the most time consuming step in any geospatial planning process (with or without Vista) will be the priority setting and data gathering phases that are preliminary to actually using Vista. How Vista will be used can have a great influence on the type of data required and tailoring the database to user needs will save time and money. Most projects begin with collecting information: what questions do you hope to address using Vista and what data are required to answer them. Data typically required include geographic information system (GIS) data layers, stakeholders values, and subject matter expertise. From our experience, these pre-planning steps generally take a few to several months, mostly because of the time to obtain input. The actual processing time for individual analyses will vary, depending on the complexity of the problem you are attempting to address, the precision of your data sets, and the overall size of your planning area. Once all inputs are entered into Vista, a large number of analyses can be conducted in just a few days.

What are Vista's system requirements?

See question 1 for details.

How much hard-disk space is needed to run Vista?

100 MB of hard-disk space is required to install Vista. An additional 200 MB is needed for Microsoft's .NET framework 1.1, which is required to run Vista. Like other GIS applications, Vista will also require additional hard disk space for data storage. The amount required will depend on the size of your application and the amount of data involved. Large, complex projects may require several tens of gigabytes of storage.

What types of data are required to run Vista?

Geographic information system (GIS) layers form the backbone of the Vista database, but additional non-spatial information is also required, including weights indicating social values and requirements for element conservation. The scale of the data and attribute detail will determine the types of analyses that can be done and the precision of the results. The following list summarizes the basic types of inputs:

  • Planning region reference information (a vector project boundary, a snap raster, a standard assessment pixel size);
  • Element information (name, importance weight(s) [optional], retention goal(s) [optional], conservation unit [area or occurrence], minimum required occurrence or patch size, and how the element responds to scenario features--the Land Use Intents [see below]);
  • Element distribution maps (vector or raster maps of NatureServe heritage network element occurrences, fish and game species habitat maps, vegetation cover maps, modeled distribution maps, scenic views, historic sites, etc. and information about the confidence in the distribution);
  • Land Use Intent (LUI) categorization. This is the list of features that may affect (for better or worse) the conservation elements and that can appear in a scenario. Vista provides a standard classification, based on the IUCN/CMP categorization of direct threats and conservation practices that can be used or edited to be project specific (recommended).
  • Policy Type categorization (optional). Vista allows you to also associate policy or causal processes to your LUIs or simply map where different policies and causes are operating. Ultimately this information is used to add another aspect of risk by identifying where conservation uses may not be enforced through reliable policies, e.g., the "paper park" problem. Vista provides a standard categorization that can be used or edited.
  • Scenario (LUI) data (vector or raster) representing the spatial distribution of current, planned/proposed, modeled, or forecast Land Use Intents. These typically include an existing land use map; and current land use and management policy maps (zoning, public land management plans, etc), other stressors such as invasive species, recreation activities, etc., conservation areas or practices such as restoration.
  • Scenario Policy Type Data such as zoning, easements, public land stipulations, public land management plans, designations such as Wilderness Areas, etc.
How much data are required to run Vista?

The amount of data needed is dependent upon the questions you want to answer and the level of precision that you require. Vista does not require any more or less data than any other valid approach. Of note, Vista is very dynamic and this allows you to start small and simple and build complexity over time.

Where can I obtain the data required for a Vista project?

Vista can incorporate data from a number of different sources in both vector and raster formats. Local and federal government agencies and conservation organizations are one good source of data. In the U.S., many national, regional, and state data portals are emerging frequently and these may provide excellent sources of a broad set of relevant data. NatureServe's network of member programs, a leading source for information about rare and endangered species and threatened ecosystems, is another important source of data. We are happy to put you into contact with a representative from one of our local Network Programs so that you can learn more about the data that these organizations can make available to you.

Where can I get help implementing a Vista project?

NatureServe offers expertise in GIS mapping, data management, and conservation planning to help you develop a Vista project that meets your planning requirements. Expert assistance is available to help you with every step in the planning process, from data development to advanced scientific analyses. We tailor our services to meet your needs which may range from basic advising for getting started to complete projects with technical and knowledge transfer and capacity building. For more information about the services we offer, see our support page.

How can I obtain training?

Please see our training and support page.

How can I get technical support?

You must have a current support services contract. If you are not a support services client but would like to report a bug or suggest a feature or improvement, email us at

Where has Vista been used?

There have been >2000 downloads of Vista but because the tool is free, it is difficult to know exactly where it has or is being used. NatureServe has conducted or supported projects throughout the Western Hemisphere at scales ranging from municipalities to large ecoregions and for a large variety of sectors and purposes. Please see Vista Related Projects for a sample of projects we have supported.

How can I schedule a Vista demo for my organization?

Pre-recorded and downloadable demonstrations are available. Custom demonstrations can be arranged for large organizations interested in potential broad adoption and support services. To schedule custom demonstrations, contact Patrick Crist of PlanIt Forward.

If you have additional questions, please contact us at