Governors across the western United States this week will unveil a new online mapping tool designed to help balance wildlife preservation with economic development. The project, known as the Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool (CHAT), draws on a database of ecological information from 16 states to create detailed GIS maps showing the location and significance of wetlands, wildlife populations, and natural resources. As the Associated Press reports, CHAT has been in development for five years as part of an initiative from the Western Governors Association (WGA), which will formally announce details of the project today at its annual conference in Las Vegas.

"The governors' intent back in 2008 really was to cater to industries within their states who need data while at the same time conserving the resources the states are blessed with and the governors are charged with preserving," Carly Brown, policy manager for the Western Governors Association, told the AP. "It's meant to be a starting point for states with different priorities and different resource needs to bring all their information together."

"It really is a pro-development tool."

The idea is that providing mining, energy, and construction companies with a clear map of "crucial habitats" will better inform them of the environmental impacts that proposed projects would have. Mapped resources and habitats are ranked on a scale of one to six (six being the most crucial), based on the importance of individual species and the condition of their habitats. Developers will still have to comply with federally mandated environmental assessments before beginning construction on new projects, though WGA hopes that CHAT will help them to identify where their efforts would face the least legal or regulatory resistance.

"It really is a pro-development tool," Robert Veldman, senior advisor for Texas-based Noble Energy, told the AP. "We're just letting you know if that's the piece of ground you are going to commit to, you might expect a bumpier ride than a smoother ride."

California, Montana, Washington, Wyoming and Kansas have already begun using the tool at a state level, while New Mexico and Oregon are expected to launch their databases later this month. (Nevada is timing its launch for today's announcement.)  The other states involved — Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Utah — hope to roll out their maps within the coming months.