When my husband and I decided to earn our forest management certifications and purchase a 76-acre forest in the Pacific Northwest, our goal was creating a sustainable forest of fir, cedar, hemlock, maple and alder. As city dwellers, we also approached the project not quite knowing what to expect.

A logical first step was to work with the USDA and also a private forester to map out our forest and define a plan that would harvest species that were decaying or diseased and replace them with new growth that would release itself and thrive.

We did much of our work on the ground using GPS and mobile software that enabled us to see exactly where we were in the forest – although, we ourselves were waist deep in salal and ferns.

Infrared imagery enabled us to see the health and placement of various timber stands. We overlaid this imagery on 3D maps that not only showed boundary lines of the property, but also (in multiple layers) the topography and soil types.

The richness of the imagery and GIS data was instrumental in developing a 63-page forest management plan that rules our forest today.

Of course, this is a minuscule effort when compared to the geospatial work that takes place for massive stands of timber that cover thousands of acres—but it is illustrative of how geospatial technology facilitates superior information gathering that supports forestry best practices.

“One of the primary objectives of geospatial technology in forestry today is to maintain a forest inventory map that includes species, volume, growing conditions and much more,” says John Steffenson, manager of National Government Natural Resources for Esri, which provides GIS mapping software and geospatial analytics.

“Geospatial technology is also used to support operational activities such as data collection, routing, scheduling, identifying constraints such as riparian buffers and ecologically sensitive areas, analyzing costs and determining alternatives.”

Steffenson says that commercial forestry organizations want tools that streamline efficiencies and eliminate paper. “Mobile technology is critical in this lean workflow mindset. [It’s] also a critical business need for managing contractors such as foresters, logging crews, equipment and log trucks.”

Executives and managing foresters also want visibility into forest operations that allow them to make strategic decisions.

An example is the U.S. Forest Service’s activities with public and private forest owners in the harvesting, preservation and sustainability of forests. 

At the state level, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) manages 15 million acres of forest throughout the state. To protect and sustain that forestland, the department collects data and performs mapping of the forests with 272 staff members and an operational budget of $26 million.

VDOF wanted an enterprise GIS that allowed employees to track time and accomplishments out in the field, while mapping forest-related activities such as forest stand observations, water quality harvest inspections, wildfire incidents and woodland home communities.

Today, workers use mobile devices to log in and record data. Thirteen paper forms have been eliminated, and workers no longer have to return to a central office to enter data. VDOF projects a 50-percent return on investment (ROI) in three years. 

“The forestry industry is now aggressively looking at new geospatial technology,” Steffenson says. “One area that is really taking off is GIS as a geospatial technology platform that can accommodate both traditional GIS and also new technologies like machine learning, internet of things, advanced imagery analysis and cloud computing.”

As forestry organizations adopt new technologies, they must also fight through challenges to adoption.

“Infrastructure is always a challenge,” Steffenson says. “Many organizations have not modernized their hardware and networks to facilitate web and mobile GIS workflows. Others have remote locations with real internet bandwidth constraints. Another challenge is onboard expertise. GIS has evolved to where it now requires IT knowledge and integration with the backbone IT infrastructure, as well as GIS knowledge. For many GIS specialists, it is not so easy to become IT experts when they are already too busy supporting their organizations.”

The most common GIS-related functions in forestry today are:

  •   Mapping and Visualization;
  •   Data Management;
  •   Field Mobility;
  •   Monitoring;
  •   Analytics;
  •   Design and Planning;
  •   Decision Support;
  •  Constituent Engagement; and
  •  Sharing and Collaboration.

“In the future, we will see imagery for advanced analytics,” Steffenson says. “Virtually everyone uses it as a base map to support a project, but only some are using imagery analytics operationally and routinely. We are also starting to see foresters use drone technology and GIS to automate the process of estimating the volume of wood chips at their paper mills and dashboards to deliver near real-time information to managers on operations. Public sector forestry organizations are starting to utilize UAS, raster analytics, dashboards, big data with machine learning, and other innovations to drive efficiencies and bring better information into the decision making process.”

So, what’s the best course for foresters who want to jump on board with new geospatial technologies?

“If they are new to GIS, large organizations would benefit from developing a vision and strategy early on to provide guidance on the desired outcomes and milestones to reach along the way,” Steffenson says. “And if you’re part of a forestry organization with a large legacy operation that needs modernization, you might start with leveraging GIS in the field using focused field applications for collecting data and evolve your usage over time to include more sophisticated applications.”