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Better, Faster, Cheaper: Airborne LiDAR and Enhanced Forest Inventory taking off across Canada
If you were walking in a Canadian forest this past summer, there is a probability you might have got zapped by a laser.
That’s because LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging, also known as Airborne Laser Scanning), as part of Enhanced Forest Inventories (EFI), is taking off across Canada. But not to worry, it’s perfectly safe… nor will you know you just got scanned by LiDAR.
A recent informal compilation of usage of the technology across Canada revealed over five million hectares (ha) of forested land where EFI has been created (Table 1). There is also 25+ million ha of forested land base across Canada where Airborne LiDAR has been flown, but a full EFI has not yet been generated. A further 50+ million ha is in the planning or proposed stages for LiDAR acquisition.
So why the uptake of a technology that has been viewed as expensive? Well, according to suppliers, costs are coming down: Technological improvements and new entries to the North American LiDAR survey industry (there are now several LiDAR systems in B.C. alone) have pushed the per hectare cost of LiDAR data to all-time lows.1 Costs have plummeted.2
And while costs are going down, benefits are going up. Cost-benefit studies3,4 have consistently shown a two-year or less payback for those adopting the technology. Estimates provided by forest company Tembec5 show a savings of $1.57/m3 harvested. The Province of Quebec has estimated a savings6 to the forest industry of $2.13/m3 harvested. J.D. Irving has described the technology to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources with this statement: “It’s a Game-Changer”.7
And it’s not just in Canada where the scanners are flying. An early report8 by the US Forest Service (USFS) provided a favourable comparison of the cost-benefits of a LiDAR based inventory vs. a traditional inventory for annual sampling in a 500,000 ha even-aged managed forest, reporting a time savings of 28 per cent and dollar savings of 45 per cent. A 2011 study9 by the USFS in Oregon on an operational implementation of LiDAR-based EFI concluded it was cost competitive compared to traditional methods for areas of 20,000 ha and greater. Oregon has since gone ahead with a full acquisition at the state level. The government of Montana is evaluating an acquisition for the state, referring to Oregon’s program. The State of Maine has reported10 a benefit to cost ratio of 4:1, with a payback of 2.3 years for all uses within a State sponsored LiDAR acquisition. Forest resource management was ranked as the third highest benefit and that’s just from the better terrain models. An Australian study11 in a 250,000 ha forest showed positive cash flow after two years, and a five year total NPV of AU$1.4 million.
There is ‘pull’ from the industry for the provinces to adopt the technology as part of provincial inventories: It is urgent that Government acquires and makes LiDAR coverage available for the entire Province (N.B.) as soon as possible.12 New Brunswick has responded and plans to cover 7.8 million ha by 2022 (Table 1). In B.C., where the technology offers significant savings in the mountainous terrain, there is even greater industry pull: The Truck Loggers Association has made the recommendation to the Ministry of Forests that it deploy LiDAR in its Pacific Timber Sales Area (PTSA) review, as the TFL take-backs have made the inventory patchy.13 In the B.C. Legislature, it was recently asked why isn’t the Province of B.C. using the technology in provincial forest inventories14:
“Next question: what technology is being used for inventory in B.C.? Why isn’t the best LiDAR technology available that’s being used in Alberta?” Question from B. Routley to Hon. S. Thompson, Minister, March 5, 2015.
The Ministry is not being left behind15.
“The Ministry (B.C.) is using new technology in testing LiDAR sensing technology to update forest inventory information. The technology is providing quality information in a shorter time period, enabling better informed decisions related to the forest resource.”
Better, Faster, Cheaper. If a technology has these three characteristics, it is very likely to be rapidly taken up in operational situations. From the get-go, everyone realized that LiDAR-based EFI was better. Now, as the big picture clears on all the uses the data can be put to, it is rapidly being realized as cheaper. Research and experience will only lead to the technology becoming faster.
LiDAR and Enhanced Forest Inventories are earning their stripes for all three characteristics—and uptake is increasing across Canada.
4 http://www.cif-ifc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Platt_BPG_2014.pdf slides 26, 27.
9 J. of Forestry Vol. 109(5): 267-273.
With files from Sandra Allen, Dean Toole, and Caroline Gosslin (CWFC), and Matt Kurowski and Colin Koszman (FPInnovations).
For more information:
Steve D’Eon, Knowledge Exchange Specialist, Canadian Wood Fibre Centre
Table 1: Informal scan of operational scale adoptions of
Region Details and comments
Manitoba and Saskatchewan
Think tank identifies Mexico as primary target market for more softwood lumber exports
By Tony Kryzanowski
Canada’s Softwood Lumber Agreement with the United States expired in October. This could have a significant impact on western Canadian softwood lumber producers as two-thirds of Canadian lumber production is in the West.
According to the Canada West Foundation (CWF), a public policy think tank, Canadian lumber exporters should prepare for life without a Softwood Lumber Agreement (SLA) while learning from their positive experiences developing other markets like China and Japan. Their focus should be on Mexico as a primary target, says the CWF.
Representatives from CWF delivered this particularly timely message at this year’s Alberta Forest Products Association (AFPA) convention. Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions (AI Bio) is a major and long term sponsor of the event, given its focus on initiatives to advance the development of the bio-economy in Alberta. The forest industry, along with agriculture, are two areas where AI Bio focuses its efforts to fulfill its mandate.
The message of the need for diversification that was delivered by CWF representatives was sweet music to the ears of AI Bio Chief Executive Officer, Steve Price. AI Bio has been promoting both product and market diversification within the province’s forest sector for years, as a hedge against too much dependence on the American softwood lumber market.
“I think we will always export softwood lumber to the U.S. market, but I think the real growth opportunity is to be in these other markets and to develop alternate product lines, which will result in alternative revenue streams and a buoyant and successful industry in Alberta,” Price says. “AI Bio is here to help industry investigate potential new bioindustrial products as an alternative to softwood lumber, and industry should spend at least the next year investigating opportunities in this area.”
To put Canada’s dependence on the American market for softwood lumber into perspective, CWF noted in its report entitled, “Branching Out – Preparing for Life Without a Softwood Lumber Agreement,” that 66 per cent of all Canadian softwood lumber was shipped to the United States in 2014. Three-quarters of softwood production is in western Canada.
“Every time housing starts to improve in the United States, we run back to that market,” Trevor McLeod, Director of the Centre for Natural Resources Policy at CWF told a rapt audience at the AFPA convention. While the recently expired SLA was popular with some Canadian producers because it brought export stability and predictability, McLeod said there is considerable danger in depending too much on the U.S. market. Nor should Canadian exporters expect the U.S. to rush back to the negotiating table for a new SLA any time soon.
“The Americans are not interested in an SLA because they have bigger fish to fry,” McLeod said. “They have decided to update the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).” So now instead of freer trade among Canada, the United States and Mexico with NAFTA, the TPP brings 12 countries to the table.
“Our ability to move the Americans on issues that are important to us is going to be a lot more difficult,” said McLeod.
So how should Canadian softwood lumber producers prepare for life without an SLA?
Carlo Dade, CWF Director of the Centre for Trade & Investment Policy, said there are export opportunities built into both NAFTA and the TPP, adding that Canadian softwood lumber exporters have an opportunity to build on the success they’ve had establishing new markets in both Japan and China.
“The rise of the middle class worldwide is creating greater demand for consumer products,” he said. “And countries like Chile, Vietnam and Mexico have significantly growing consuming classes.” Canada and Mexico are free trade partners in NAFTA, and both Chile and Vietnam are free trade partners with Canada in the TPP.
Dade said that the real prize among these three is Mexico. Yet for some unknown reason, Canadian softwood lumber exporters have not exploited this market, even though it represents an easily accessible and attractive market for softwood lumber. Canada not only has a free trade agreement with Mexico through NAFTA, but excellent direct rail, road and marine access to this market.
“There really is no better case for us than Mexico,” he said. Currently, 55 per cent of softwood lumber exports to Mexico are from the United States and 27 percent from Chile. Canada is currently in sixth spot, despite Mexican construction workers having considerable experience building with Canadian softwood lumber.
“Canadian softwood lumber exporters are already selling to Mexicans in the United States, as 25 percent of the U.S. construction workforce is Hispanic,” Dade concluded.
Short rotation woody crop commercialization is on the cusp as the world focuses on green energy and a changing climate
By Tony Kryzanowski
Canadian investment into research programs over the past 15 years to develop new sources of woody biomass feedstock for use in bioenergy and bioproducts applications is paying off, as work done to establish best practices and systems, research plantation sites, and demonstration pilot projects has brought this technology to the cusp of commercial application.
In addition to feedstock options to help develop the bioenergy industry, Derek Sidders, program lead with the Silviculture and Afforestation Innovation Group (SAIG), says: “We are also looking at providing methodologies for developing fibre sources that can be customized to meet the niche requirements of bioproducts innovators.”
Sidders adds that SAIG’s work has been focused on establishing and managing short rotation woody fibre plantations; optimizing individual components along the supply chain from the plantation to the end user in areas such as harvesting, recovery, conditioning, pre-processing and transportation; and evaluation of the growth and characteristics of the feedstock as it relates to product value, carbon budgets, and its cleansing attributes for land, air and water.
System development work has resulted in a national network of research plantation sites situated right across Canada, demonstrating different management practices, feedstock with different rotation ages, and fibre samples grown specifically to meet the needs of niche bioproduct industries.
In some instances, the sites demonstrate high yield afforestation of large stem, purpose-grown fibre.
“These plantations, primarily consisting of blocks of identical hybrid poplar clones, are located all across Canada, typically resulting in trees that are 25 to 30 centimetres in diameter and 18 to 22 metres tall,” says Sidders. “They have growth characteristics and fibre attributes that are very similar, which provides us with the ability to customize the growing stock to meet the needs of a final user.”
Researchers have also developed another plantation design resulting in concentrated woody biomass suited for power production as a possible alternative to coal, consisting of hedge plantations of willow, hybrid poplar and clonal aspen with short rotation of only three to five years.
“The intent of these plantations is to grow biomass in very short timeframes, recover them, and grow multiple coppice crops from the individual stumps, which typically have a longevity of up to 22 years,” says Sidders. “So we should be able to harvest up to seven rotations from each root system.” An added value with this system is that it could potentially be used to ameliorate and rehabilitate forest sites disturbed for other land uses.
A third plantation design that researchers have developed is the mixed wood afforestation model, consisting of fast-growing hybrid poplar or aspen growing as a cover crop, along with softwoods such as white spruce, white pine, or other tolerant softwood species that have localized and regional potential. In addition to offering multiple commercial crops, establishing these types of plantations has the potential to help jurisdictions adapt to a changing climate.
“This gives us a good bang for our buck in terms of protecting softwood stems from increasingly extreme climate risk while rehabilitating sites by re-establishing woody root systems and capturing leaf fall from the fast growing hybrids,” says Sidders.
The hardwoods could be carefully harvested after 12 to 16 years. After removal, the established softwoods would then release to become a second crop.
“From a changing climate standpoint, trees grown in this plantation model also sequester carbon, carry carbon, and create a new value on that site, with the potential for fibre use in both conventional forest products as well as developing bioproducts,” says Sidders.
This model has the added advantage of potential use to rehabilitate sites or to increase the productivity of existing sites using a mixed configuration of native species assisted by a short rotation woody crop.
Sidders says there are a number of initiatives underway from coast to coast evaluating short rotation woody biomass as an alternative to fossil fuels in energy production, making better use of marginal to moderate quality land, and as a diversification strategy among farmers where a portion of their land is dedicated to both agricultural production and to afforestation.
“We are on the cusp of commercializing these systems mostly with the push for biofuels and green energy being a great option for reducing greenhouse gases,” Sidders says.
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