Nov Dec, 2003





Technology in the forests

More forestry companies can take advantage of GPS and other technologies

By Tim Buckley

A Bell UH-1 “Huey” helicopter, loaded with our BLM survey crew and its revolutionary new equipment, touched down in Ophir, Alaska, a famous mining district not far from the Kuskokwim River west of the Alaska Range. It was 1971. The camp we inhabited in Ophir had been abandoned probably 40 years before.

It felt strange, trying out our newest gadgets in the footprints of ghosts. Where miners had placed their rudimentary hydraulics and dredging equipment, we were now setting up BLM’s portable “Geoceiver,” a state-of-the-art global positioning system (GPS) for its day. The Geoceiver was comprised of a couple hundred pounds of computerized satellite-tracking gear in four big crash-proof cases. The delicate instruments took hours to set up and more than two days to get an accurate fix on our location, because there were only a few military satellites to lock onto at the time. With the Geoceiver, BLM embarked on a quest to improve the accuracy of Alaska’s resource maps.

GPS Technology as Standard
 It wasn’t long after the early 1970s that GPS technology became standard fare on commercial airlines. Today, compact handheld GPS units are everywhere and they dwarf the Geo-ceiver’s capabilities. Even the least expensive models are accurate enough to be valuable safety equipment for hunters, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. But GPS technology is only the tip of the iceberg. Computer miniaturization and powerful software programs have been a boon to countless industries in the past three decades; the timber industry is not the least among them. While BLM experimented with early GPS technology in rural Alaska, Toby Atterbury was doing similar cutting-edge development for Crown Zellerbach Corporation in the northwest forests.

Aerial and satellite imagery combined with computer programs allow various views of the forest.

He helped develop the earliest forest inventory computer programs for the company’s 880,000 acres in Oregon, Washington and California. During his tenure there, the industry moved from paper-based record keeping to mainframe computers and then to personal computers. When Atterbury left Crown Z in 1985, as manager of its NW Timber and Wood Products Resource Information Department, he had been with them for over 20 years. With extensive experience in timber inventory, cruising and appraisal of land and timber, he set off to start his own company.

Atterbury Consultants, Inc. now employs 15 people between its two offices in Oregon and Washington. When Toby started the company, his idea was to offer cruising, inventory and appraisal work as a consultant. “About 50 percent of our income still comes from timber cruising,” says Jon Aschenbach, Atterbury’s Vice President, “and another 20 percent from appraisal work.”

Toby Atterbury discusses technology

The rest comes from the sale of computerized products, software and educational seminars — all aimed at helping forest products companies to become more profitable. “By 1987 or ’88, timber cruising programs for PCs were becoming available,” Aschenbach says. Atterbury wrote a software program called SuperACE™ (Accurate Cruise Extension) for PCs in 1989. It has been upgraded several times since then, moving from a DOS to Windows-based program.

The program allows each user company to customize its cruise information (species, sort, grade, cost, price, etc.) in a variety of ways. Flexibility allows for different systems of cruise design — tree measurements and log lengths, for example. The program has 64 different “reports” to choose from to represent the data; the output of information can be represented as a numerical chart, pie chart or graph, and the data can be shared through the company’s network. “More than 300 companies and agencies use SuperACE,” Aschenbach says, “and at Weyerhaeuser alone, there are more than 50 foresters using the program.” Some of the other PC programs that Atterbury developed include:
 FLIPS™ 98, another Windows-based program. The “Forestland Inventory Planning System” program is for companies that are already using SuperACE, but have added needs for growth capability on large property holdings.
 ForestVIEW™ Extension is a GIS mapping software that “revolutionizes the way foresters make maps, calculate acres and create reports,” according to Aschenbach.

The program superimposes roads ownership boundary information and natural resource features over top of aerial or satellite imagery. ForestVIEW is easy to learn and use. The Revolution Introduced by Handheld Computers But Aschenbach said that handheld computers, even more than PCs, have helped improve the accuracy of cruise data input as well as the timeliness of getting that information downloaded to PCs and used in GIS applications. “Before 1990, inventory information would be collected by hand in the field and then reentered into a mainframe or PC computer. Handhelds allow storage of huge amounts of data that can be electronically downloaded quickly, reducing the chances of data entry errors,” he says.

Some popular handhelds combine both a powerful GIS data collection computer with a GPS unit, built into a machine scarcely larger or heavier than a desk phone handset. Among the most powerful and durable models are the MC-GPS and March II, manufactured by Corvallis Microtechnology, Inc. Other non-GPS handhelds Aschenbach recommends include the Canadian- built DAP Technologies CE864 and the CMT brand MC5T model. “A handheld pays for itself quickly,” said Margaret Banks, the GIS/Inventory Manager for Oregonbased Stimson Lumber. “I’m still faster on cards than I am using a handheld,” she says, referring to cards traditionally used by foresters for cruising activity. “But I’m not a fast typist, so a handheld avoids the time and expense of having the cruiser sit down and keypunch in the data,” adds Banks, who has worked for Stimson since 1989.

Aschenbach said one of the biggest assets of using handheld computers is the ability to catch data entry errors while still in the field. Atterbury Consultants developed the SUPER EASY software specifically for use in most of the popular handheld computers. “The program double-checks (against stored, user-defined tables) for things like valid codes and numbers (on proper species, grades, tree specs, etc.). Immediate feedback like that can help cruisers become better. If you’re better able to describe and quantify timber, it translates into more money for the company,” Aschenbach explains. And with handhelds being able to tie directly into compatible GIS mapping programs, converting data into a map’s coordinate system, they’ve added greatly in terms of time-saving, accuracy, presentation and convenience.

Satellite Imagery Versus Aerial Photography
The number of satellites available for both GPS and GIS purposes has grown rapidly since the early 1970s. Aschenbach said that Atterbury Consultants offers clients both options but that there are some emerging benefits to digital satellite images. “Because of competition and increasing quantities of archive imagery, the cost can be as low as $7.70 per square kilometer, equal or better than the cost of aerial photos.” There are many benefits, according to Aschenbach:
 Resolution of satellite images rivals aerial photos in most forest situations.
 Color consistency is better than in aerial photos.
 Turnaround time for satellite imagery is often more than twice as fast.
 Fewer seams and no problems with photo crab, tilt, yaw or uneven flight elevation.
 Satellite imagery can be used with many of the popular GIS mapping programs. What’s next? It’s hard to predict as technology marches on, making what was impossible yesterday, possible today. We’ll just have to wait and see.


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This page was last updated on Tuesday, September 28, 2004