Seeing the forest and the trees is a lot easier with software developed by scientists at Mississippi State University.
Researchers at MSU's Forest and Wildlife Research Center have created the Mississippi Forest Monitoring and Information System, a forest inventory and information system that combines satellite remote sensing data and ground surveys. It is the first time forest-related satellite data and ground measurements have been combined on such a large scale in the United States.
"The satellite imagery allowed us to determine the age, size and species of trees in a forested area," said Emily Schultz, software co-developer and professor in MSU’s College of Forest Resources. "Field plot locations were then collected using global positioning technology."
Researchers conducted a pilot project in a four-county area before expanding the scope statewide. District foresters in the Mississippi Forestry Commission collected the ground data, and MSU scientists entered the satellite imagery.
"We discovered during the pilot project that we needed to take measurements from 100 plots on the ground to have a precise county-level estimate of the timber resources," Schultz said. "This number of measurements provided a 95 percent confidence level for the inventory."
Every 10 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service conducts forest inventory assessments. Until this software was developed, the data represented only state and regional inventories and could not be used at the county level. The data also did not account for the distribution of the forest within the state.
"We needed an efficient inventory system to define the spatial distribution of forest resources available, to provide more precise estimates of forest resources at the county level, and to make the information readily available," Schultz said.
The Mississippi Institute for Forest Inventory was created to develop and implement a continuous, statewide forest inventory using the processes and software from the pilot project. The institute, which is a unit of the Mississippi Forestry Commission, also distributes and manages the forest inventory for economic and public policy development.
"With Mississippi’s abundant forest resources and this inventory system, we can improve the state’s economy by attracting new businesses and wisely managing our natural resources," said Wayne Tucker, retired executive director of the Mississippi Institute for Forest Inventory.
Forest landowners and economic developers have found the data and software useful. The Mississippi Institute for Forest Inventory has prepared about 300 resource analyses for companies interested in establishing businesses in the state, Tucker said.
"It is exciting to begin the second cycle so that we can accurately assess the growth, harvest and change in the resource since the first inventory," Tucker said.
While the software was developed primarily for inventory, scientists have continuously worked to improve it and add new information for forest managers and others in the industry. New components include fire risk assessment, invasive species, biomass inventory, and growth and yield models.
"With wildfires occurring frequently in other parts of the country, we thought it would be prudent to add a fuel build-up assessment to determine fire risk," said Tom Matney, software co-developer and MSU forestry professor. "Wildfire can often be prevented by proactively managing areas that are prone to high fuel build-up."
Wildfire is not the only hazard to forests. Invasive species, including cogongrass and kudzu, can quickly overtake a forest and limit its value.
The growth and yield modeling in the software can predict the future size, age and classification of trees.
"Forest managers rely on growth and yield models to assess whether their short-term plans will meet long-term sustainability goals," Matney said. "This is important from the standpoint of both the business and the environmental viability of forestry in the future."
Finally, scientists added the inventorying of biomass in the software.
"An explosion of interest in the development of alternative energy sources for both domestic and foreign markets has created the need to calculate available biomass resources for companies interested in locating to Mississippi," Tucker said.