Feature: Precision Forestry
Precision forestry, the use of precision technology to plan, design, and implement forestry operations, is not a new concept, especially at OSU. Researchers have used computer modeling programs, GPS, GIS, and other digital equipment for years. However, as sustainable forestry practices become more complex and digital equipment has become more efficient and affordable, scientists and professional foresters are asking some hard questions:
When is high technology really cost effective? How is it best applied? What are its limitations? When does it make sense to use new technologies instead of conventional methods? Is it better to combine high technology with conventional methods?
Loren Kellogg, Professor in OSU's Forest Engineering Department, notes that a significant number of applications to date have focused on planning and modeling in the office, then applying that information with conventional methods in the field. Now scientists are studying if, when, where, and how digital tools can be used effectively in the field.
In June 2003, Derek Solmie, a graduate student working with Kellogg, Michael Wing (Assistant Professor), and Jim Kiser (Instructor), reported the results of a two-year study of digital measurement technologies for forest operations at the Second Annual Precision Forestry Symposium at the University of Washington. The work involved surveying small harvest patches and a skyline corridor layout using a conventional string box, manual compass, and clinometer and comparing it to the precision, accuracy, time efficiency, and cost of using laser distance-measuring devices, digital compasses, digital data recorders, and a GPS.
Results were enlightening, although inconclusive. In some cases, the conventional method was better, and in others, the precision technology method was better.
"Our job is to help users identify where and when to use each technology," says Kellogg. "Sometimes the appropriate technology is very simple, and sometimes it's more high tech." For instance, he says that it is often appropriate to use horses and helicopters in the same timber harvest, depending on site conditions and objectives.
The team would like to expand their research into other applications of operational planning and field layout. Their goal is to create a matrix to show which technology works best in each specific application.
Competition, Climate Changes, Diseases May Shape Post-fire Landscape
The Biscuit Fire of 2002 burned about 400,000 acres in the Siskiyou National Forest, including virtually all of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. Not only was it the largest recorded fire in Oregon history, it also was the nation's most costly fire-suppression effort last year.
Much of the land burned in the Biscuit Fire was designated as Wilderness, late successional reserves, or back country recreation under the Northwest Forest Plan, to be managed for old forest conditions to provide habitat for species such as the spotted owl and opportunities for recreation. As such, it was set aside in a blend of national wilderness area, late-successional reserves, and some roadless recreation areas, with only a small portion (about 10%) open for multiple use and timber production.
In the wake of the fire, however, "much of the area that was supposed to be managed for older forest characteristics now consists of dead or dying trees," says John Sessions, Professor of Forest Engineering, leader of a College of Forestry team that assessed consequences of delay on post-fire conifer restoration opportunities for the Biscuit Fire. Reflecting on the results of the College of Forestry's intensive reforestation studies for southwest Oregon in the 1980s (the FIR program) that pioneered innovative ways to regenerate conifer forests in southwest Oregon, Sessions said the team concluded that "Left to nature, it is unlikely the most intensely burned lands will return quickly to their former status, and if they do it will take decades, perhaps even a century or longer than if we helped them along."
Given that fire is a part of natural ecosystem processes in western forests, however, what is the benefit in helping reforestation along? Won't the forests just grow back naturally if they are left alone? According to Sessions, researchers are increasingly recognizing that climate conditions are not static and future landscapes may not replace the older conifer forests with what existed pre-fire. That's because conditions in the area have changed since the time the older forests originated.
"A lot of this conifer forest got its start in the late 1700s during a cooler period called the Little Ice Age," he says. "Local ecologists say the climate is now warmer and relatively more conducive to shrubs and hardwoods. And, there are now foreign plant diseases to deal with. The long term survival of several minor, but important, conifer species may depend on planting recently developed disease-resistant seedlings."
Sessions and a team of scientists, including Robert Buckman (Emeritus Professor, Forest Resources and former Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service), Mike Newton (Emeritus Professor, Forest Science), and Jeff Hamann (Faculty Research Assistant), examined the consequences of management delay for the return of complex, conifer-dominated forest on the burned-over lands in a report released July 2003 called, "The Biscuit Fire: Management Options for Forest Regeneration, Fire and Insect Risk Reduction and Timber Salvage" (available at http://www.cof.orst.edu/cof/admin/Biscuit%20Fire%20Report.pdf).
The researchers found that a lack of human intervention where the Biscuit Fire was hottest and most intense will quite probably lead to "cycles of shrubs, hardwoods, and fires for a long time." A vast area that was once home to northern spotted owls and many other old-forest wildlife species may be reduced to huge fields of shrubs, madrone, and tanoak, which are tenacious in these dry, rocky soils. And, the enormous amounts of dead timber will ultimately fall, layering the forest floor with fuel for future fires that could have far more destructive impacts on soils than the original Biscuit Fire and further delay, for decades or more, the recovery of conifer dominated forests.
Nevertheless, "there are many actions managers could take to help the Biscuit landscape return to conifer forests more quickly and in the process protect soils, streams, wildlife, and achieve the old-growth characteristics that most of the region is designated for," Sessions says. "But what we want the public to understand is that the window of opportunity is closing, very quickly. If management decisions are not made and acted upon very soon, nature will likely replace the former older forests with shrublands for a very long time into the future." This will favor a very different suite of wildlife species than the structurally complex forests that will be replaced by shrublands, according to Dean Hal Salwasser.
The Forest Service has begun replanting about 1,000 acres and is completing an EIS to decide on the ultimate level of restoration, probably between 20,000 and 80,000 acres. This effort will be expensive, and costs will increase with time, possibly doubling or tripling over the next several years over what the costs would have been immediately after the fire. However, environmentally sensitive logging with helicopters (see related story, page 6) and other "light-on-the-land" approaches could help pay for reforestation programs, should such intervention be decided upon.
Such efforts would still be a race against time. By 2006, the researchers estimate, the declining value of fire-killed trees due to rot, decay, and insect infestation will make them largely valueless for wood products. Salvage outside of Wilderness had the potential to yield a stumpage value of $100 million or more to offset restoration of the forests for late-successional wildlife species habitat and recreation, had it been done immediately after the fire. Since the fire, the report estimates that more than 22% of potentially salvageable volume has been lost due to decay and insects, and the window for economic recovery is closing rapidly. Furthermore, experimental management of burned areas outside the Kalmiopsis Wilderness would also provide a "once in a generation" opportunity to compare the effects of active forest restoration, versus no action, on two large, contiguous areas that have experienced the same major environmental impact, the study said.
Successful Forest Engineering Graduate Students —Congratulations!
Christine Erica Marbet, MS "Hydrology of Five Forest Roads in the Oregon Coast Range"
Derek Solmie, MF "Comparing Field Measurement Strategies for Operational Planning and Layout"
Forestry Communications Group, Peavy Hall 256