Smart digital strategies for forest management

23 August 2018

Field Surveys are an important part of sustainable forest management. Most of the forest departments across Canada have been using traditional paper-based surveys. However, Manitoba Forestry and Peatlands Branch digitalized their survey workflow using mobile geospatial technology. Tony Viveiros and Marianne Porteous at Manitoba Sustainable Development elaborate more on their use of geographic information system (GIS) technology to increase efficiency and collaboration across the department.

Prompt regrowth or renewal of harvested forest lands is an essential part of sustainable forest management. Even after a harvested area has been replanted, or is growing a new forest, the forest manager’s job is not done. These areas must be surveyed to make sure they have met prescribed renewal goals and will become productive forests again.

In Manitoba, the Manitoba Forestry and Peatlands Branch conducts two main surveys called silviculture surveys. The two surveys our branch conducts are the Hardwood Renewal Survey and the Free to Grow Survey.

Hardwood Renewal surveys are conducted three to five years after hardwood dominated stands have been harvested. The overall purpose of renewal surveys is to document the existence of hardwood re-generation and provide a comprehensive assessment of tree quantity (i.e. density and stocking), quality, health and spatial distribution. Manitoba Forestry and Peatlands Branch field staff survey approximately 3,000 hectares (ha) of regenerating hardwood stands annually.

The Free to Grow survey is conducted approximately 10 years after softwood-dominated stands have been harvested. Young softwood trees like spruce or pine grow best when they are free from competition and receive adequate sunlight. Because of this, the overall purpose of Free to Grow surveys is not only to assess tree quantity (density and stocking), quality, health and spatial distribution, but also to figure out if those softwood trees have the necessary space to thrive. Manitoba Forestry and Peatlands Branch field staff survey approximately 2,500 ha of regenerating softwood stands annually for free to grow status.

The Manitoba Forestry and Peatlands Branch has been collecting forest renewal data for decades, using traditional paper-based surveys. Using these methods in the field, survey data was written on paper tally sheets. At the end of the field day, the information was then compiled manually to calculate stocking levels and stocking maps were hand drawn. After the field season was over in the fall, staff spent weeks in the office, manually entering the survey data into a spreadsheet. While this worked reasonably well, a more efficient workflow was needed to reduce errors in data entry, provide faster access to results and automate tasks.

Field staff became familiar with mobile data collection in 2015, after successfully implementing the use of iPads with Esri’s Collector for ArcGIS application in the provincial Dutch Elm Disease Management Program. In 2016, silviculture field staff launched a trial using iPads with Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. However, this approach did not meet our expectations, because field staff found the process for entering survey data inefficient and time-consuming. Following the iPad test, staff tested Survey123 for ArcGIS for another field measurement program called Temporary Volume Sampling. Meanwhile, we also piloted an alternate silviculture survey workflow that used Collector, Survey123 and ArcGIS Online. More >>.