The following post originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Northwest Woodlands. It was written by SilviaTerra’s co-founder, Max Nova.
The last decade has seen an incredible number of technological innovations that are transforming the way landowners relate to their forests. From satellites and drones to smartphones and cloud computing, new technology is empowering landowners to monitor and manage their properties like never before. In many cases, private landowners now have access to tools that are just as powerful (and sometimes more so!) as those used by large institutional landowners.
At the same time, this explosion of new technologies can be a bit overwhelming. In this article, we’ll cover several of the main technologies and tools that you can start using today to monitor and manage your forest.
One of the biggest changes in the past few years has been the widespread adoption of smartphones. These devices are packed with sensors that are especially useful for landowners. The built-in GPS and compass in your smartphone can be used for mapping and for navigating to sample plot locations within your stand. You can use the integrated camera to document stand conditions and some apps can even use the camera to determine tree species. And, of course, the touchscreen is great for data entry.
Smartphone apps are also a great way to get a younger generation of future landowners engaged with the forest. Here are a few of the apps that can turn your smartphone (and your grandchild!) into a forest data collection machine:
Avenza Maps is a very popular free mapping app for iOS, Android, and Microsoft mobile devices. You can load in your own georeferenced PDFs and geotiffs, or purchase data layers from their in-app store. You can also save and export placemarks as you navigate through your property.
iNaturalist is a project of the California Academy of Sciences that helps you identify plant and animal species in your forest. When you take a picture with the app, it records your GPS location and uploads your picture to the iNaturalist website. Then, a community of experts helps identify your critter – for free! You’re also acting as a “citizen scientist” and your species sighting information is contributed to a global biodiversity database.
Get expert species identification with the iNaturalist app
Plot Hound is a free timber cruising app created by SilviaTerra that runs on your smartphone or tablet. It navigates you out to each sample plot, lets you record the trees in the plot, and then sends your data back to your account on the Canopy website for reporting.
SilviaTerra’s Plot Hound app makes it easy to record tree measurements
You can use Plot Hound to navigate to each of your sample plots
If you don’t already have a smartphone or tablet, we’d recommend that you get an iPad mini. There’s much more screen real estate on the tablet than on a phone, so you’ve got more room to work with navigation or data-entry apps. Most forestry apps can work offline, so you don’t need to worry about buying a data plan or having a signal out in the woods.
Battery Extender – If your phone’s screen is set to maximum brightness and the GPS is running all the time, your phone battery probably isn’t going to make it through the whole day. Luckily, there are a ton of battery extender solutions. We’ve had good luck with external battery extenders like the Jackery Bolt, but you can even buy cases for your phone that have built-in battery extenders.
External Bluetooth GPS – If you need high accuracy GPS measurements, you should look into getting an external bluetooth GPS. Your smartphone’s built-in GPS can usually get you down to about 30 feet of accuracy, but an external GPS can get down to 5-10 feet, even under tree canopy. Running a GPS antenna consumes a lot of power, so you’ll also get a big boost in your battery life if you offload that work to an external GPS unit. We’ve had good success with the Dual X150 GPS – and it’s only $82 on Amazon.
Popular free tools like Google Maps and Google Earth are empowering landowners to visualize their properties easily and instantly. In Google Earth, you can even drag a timeline slider back and forth to view historic imagery of your property going back decades.This is a great way to tell a story about how your forests have developed over time and to share your forest management decision-making process with a new generation.
You can also use remotely-sensed imagery to inform your forest management decisions. One big win you can achieve with imagery is to redelineate your stand bounds to make sure that similar forest types are grouped together. This will significantly reduce your cost of obtaining a forest inventory by reducing the amount of variability within each stand. Imagery can also be valuable for operational planning as you map out potential skidder paths and landing sites.
If you want to go beyond the capabilities of Google Earth, you can actually get access to most of the underlying imagery for free. Google Earth primarily draws from a US Geological Survey satellite mission called Landsat. You can search for and download these images for free from the USGS “Earth Explorer” website at http://earthexplorer.usgs.gov. However, the Landsat imagery is only available at 30 meter resolution. If you want higher-resolution imagery, you can check out the US Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) which has 1 meter resolution imagery that is often less than 3 years old. The NAIP imagery is packaged at the county level and is compressed with the not-particularly-user-friendly MrSID format. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can find tutorials online for how to decompress NAIP imagery and view it.
A grayscale 1-meter resolution image from the National Agricultural Imagery Program
And no discussion of imagery would be complete without a mention of drone technology. The last few years have seen a significant drop in the cost and training needed to acquire and operate a drone. The DJI Phantom 4 now retails for $999. This drone can be operated from an iPad and the software has taken much of the complexity out of stitching drone imagery together. Federal regulations are now permitting more and more drone flights, so many landowners are wondering if it makes sense to purchase a drone for their own use. While they’re certainly fun and the images are beautiful, in our experience at SilviaTerra, we have yet to see anyone making forest management decisions based off of drone imagery that they couldn’t have made with less time, expense, and hassle using a satellite or NAIP image.
The world of satellite imaging is currently being shaken up by the emergence of several other new imagery platforms. There are new companies like Planet Labs that are operating massive fleets of hundreds of tiny “microsatellites” that are taking pictures of every place in the US nearly every day. The resolution of these images isn’t quite down to 1 meter, but that’s just a matter of time. These new microsatellite vendors offer a simple and low-cost way to get recent, high resolution images of your property.
But there are many steps between getting an image of your property and having a statistically sound forest inventory. Several regional consulting firms are now using SilviaTerra’s CruiseBoost service to lower the cost of conducting a forest inventory. By pairing field measurements with the freely available satellite and aerial imagery we’ve discussed in this article, CruiseBoost “fills in the gaps” between your sample plots and enables you to get a more accurate forest inventory with fewer plots. In the near future, we’ll be rolling out a nationwide forest inventory “data layer” that landowners can access to get an instant forest inventory. Stay tuned!
Remote sensing can help “fill in the gaps” between your sample plots. This is a “heatmap” of timber volume across a property.
Once you’ve collected all of these field measurements and acquired imagery of your property, how do you begin to analyze it? This is generally a job for a piece of software called a “Geographic Information System” or GIS for short. By far and away, the most popular industrial-grade GIS system is ArcGIS built by ESRI. Unfortunately a license for ArcGIS can run into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Luckily, there is a free alternative that can do just about anything that you’d want to do. QGIS (www.qgis.org) is a free and open-source GIS system that runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. Using QGIS you can:
- Import a satellite image as a base layer
- Pan and zoom to your property
- Draw a boundary around each of your stands
- Calculate the acreage of each stand
- Export your stand boundaries in a “shapefile” that you can share with consulting foresters, loggers, etc.
And that’s just scratching the surface. There are plenty of YouTube tutorials online for how to do advanced geospatial analysis of your property using QGIS. The site www.qgistutorials.com is a great place to start.
The free QGIS software can help you perform advanced geospatial mapping and analysis. In this screenshot, we see stand boundaries overlaid on a free digital elevation map (DEM) from the USDA.
A final piece of the technological puzzle is the emergence of fully-featured web applications in “the cloud.” Most of us have used web apps like Facebook or Gmail that allow you to check your messages from any device with an internet connection. There’s a ton of engineering going on behind the scenes to make this possible, but the end result is that we’re able to access incredibly powerful software tools running online without installing anything but a web browser like Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Internet Explorer.
This is particularly useful for forest owners because many of the software tools used in forestry are complicated to set up and require a lot of processing power. There is now a new generation of web applications that integrate the software and data you need for forest management and make it available through a website.
A great example of this is FVS Online (https://forest.moscowfsl.wsu.edu/FVSOnline/) which is supported by the forestry school at Washington State. It’s a user-friendly way to access the US Forest Service’s powerful Forest Vegetation Simulator which you can use to estimate the future growth of your forest. You just need to go to the website and then FVS Online will walk you through the steps – there’s nothing to install.
Another very user-friendly web app is MyLandPlan (http://mylandplan.org). MyLandPlan is developed and supported by the American Forest Foundation and helps landowners map their forest and develop and implement management plans for their property. It serves as a basic online GIS system and also makes it easy for you to connect with local consulting foresters to help manage your forest.
The American Forest Foundation’s MyLandPlan website can help you plan the management of your forest and connect you with local forestry consultants
Canopy is a website (www.silviaterra.com) that you can use to draw your property boundaries and set up a grid of plots for a timber cruise. Once you sync the completed cruise data from the companion Plot Hound mobile app, Canopy automatically generates free reports on your basic stand-level statistics as well as graphs of your species/diameter distributions. If desired, you can also purchase reports with more in-depth statistical workups and calculations of your timber product volumes. Northwest Woodlands readers can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free volume report. Over 5,000 landowners and timber cruisers have signed up for free Canopy accounts and measured over 200,000 plots.
SilviaTerra’s Canopy website helps you lay out a grid of plots for your cruise
Technology for landowners has never been as affordable, powerful, readily available, or easy to use as it is today. With this guide, you’re now equipped to choose the right technologies for managing your property like a pro!