Wood Business

Forests on challenging terrain

Recent developments as discussed at COFE-FETEC conference

August 15, 2023  By Dzhamal Amishev

Safety remains a paramount concern in forestry operations. Smart sensors and wearable assistive technology, such as exoskeletons, are being explored. Photo: Annex Business Media.

Steep slope harvesting presents unique challenges and risks to the forest industry. At the COFE-FETEC international conference in Flagstaff, Ariz., in May, recent advancements and innovations in technology, safety measures, and operational practices have paved the way for more efficient and sustainable logging on challenging terrain.

Forest fires: A growing concern

Forest fires have become an increasingly significant threat to forest ecosystems and human settlements in recent years. Canada in particular has experienced an alarming increase in the scale and intensity of wildfires. As of June 27, Canada has already surpassed its historical record for the total area burned in a single season. This poses a significant challenge for the forest industry, as it necessitates the adoption of proactive measures to mitigate the risks associated with forest fires. Effective forest management practices, silvicultural and operational adaptations are crucial in protecting valuable forest resources and minimizing the impact of wildfires.

Thinning as a tool for increased resilience

The interior forests of B.C. are facing unprecedented disturbances such as insect outbreaks and wildfires, compromising the long-term stability of forest stands. Commercial thinning (CT) has emerged as a widely implemented silvicultural treatment to address these challenges. By selectively removing trees in mid-rotation even-aged conifer stands, CT enhances the resilience of the remaining trees to stressors and improves the potential of harvested wood, contributing to sustainable forest management. Thinning operations help create healthier forests by reducing competition among trees for resources, promoting better tree growth, and increasing resistance to insect infestations and wildfire risks. However, the financial feasibility of forest thinning operations has been a challenge. High operational costs and low revenues, especially when targeting low-value and small-diameter trees, hinder landscape-scale planning and treatment prioritization. To address this, a systematic literature review and a new thinning cost model have been developed. These tools aid foresters in developing cost-effective plans for thinning operations, optimizing forest management objectives, and ensuring a sustainable balance between environmental stewardship and economic viability.

Residue management on complex terrain

Residue management plays a crucial role in ensuring post-harvest environmental sustainability and maximizing the value of accumulated materials – substantially more so when thinning on steep terrain. Georeferenced unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) imagery has proven effective in measuring large harvest residue piles on rolling-to-steep terrain. By capturing photogrammetric models of residue piles, it becomes possible to remotely measure volume and depth accurately, allowing for informed management decisions. Active management and measurement of residue piles are increasingly important not only to maximize their value but also to mitigate potential environmental risks, such as erosion and nutrient loss.


Subsequent biomass utilization and the production of bio-based products present exciting opportunities for the forest industry. Traditional practices such as pile burning for fuel treatment removals are being reevaluated, and alternative solutions explored. Financial and operations research models are being developed to overcome barriers to utilizing fuel treatment removals as an alternative to pile burning. This shift towards sustainable biomass utilization helps reduce GHG emissions, improve air quality, and create value-added products such as biochar, with multiple applications in agriculture and environmental remediation. Modelling inventory management policies for pellet facilities to adapt to seasonal biomass supply and demand fluctuations can optimize production and ensure a steady supply of bio-based products.

Electrification and digitization for sustainable operations

The forest industry is increasingly exploring electrification and digitization as climate-smart solutions. Battery-electric log trucks are being considered for steep forest roads in regions like Western Oregon. The feasibility of battery-electric log trucks depends on factors such as cost, battery capacity, topography, charging infrastructure, and operational requirements. Preliminary studies suggest that these trucks offer environmental benefits by reducing emissions and noise pollution while maintaining performance and efficiency. The potential of battery-powered chainsaws in forestry operations is also being investigated, with promising results that could revolutionize traditional logging practices by minimizing emissions, reducing maintenance costs, and improving operator comfort and safety.

Safety and productivity advancements through technology and innovation

Safety remains a paramount concern in forestry operations. Smart sensors and wearable assistive technology, such as exoskeletons, are being explored to detect and mitigate danger zones, reducing the risk of accidents. Technologies like proximity sensors and machine vision systems can help identify and manage danger zones more effectively. Understanding the frictional performance of wire ropes is helping improve anchoring techniques and enhance occupational safety both in winch-assist and cable yarding operations. Accurate knowledge of rope friction coefficients allows for secure anchorage, reducing the risk of accidents during logging operations.

Enhancing productivity in forest operations is a continuous pursuit. An integrated approach for production performance analyses of winch-assist harvesting in Western Canada has provided valuable insights into operational efficiencies. By analyzing key performance indicators, such as cycle times, productivity rates, and machine utilization, forest managers can identify areas for improvement and optimize the use of machinery and labour resources. Similarly, analysis of grapple yarding operations using on-board computer systems and remote sensing-based enhanced forest inventories has provided valuable data for productivity and utilization analysis. By leveraging technology and digital solutions, the forest industry can streamline operations, reduce downtime, and improve overall productivity.

Automation holds immense potential for the forest industry, offering cost reductions, increased safety, and the ability to manage labour shortages effectively. While progress in developing autonomous forest machines has been slow due to the challenging environment and complex tasks involved, recent advances indicate that the pace might speed up. Significant progress has been made toward automated and fossil-free operations in forestry, showcasing the feasibility of autonomous solutions. Successful field demonstrations of autonomous forwarding have also provided promising results, highlighting the potential for automation in streamlining operations and reducing reliance on manual labour.

Steep slope harvesting is undergoing a transformation through technological advancements, safety improvements, and innovative practices. Continued research and collaboration among industry stakeholders, researchers, and technology developers will further drive advancements in steep slope harvesting, leading to a more resilient and sustainable forest sector.

Dzhamal Amishev is an assistant professor at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., and has over 15 years of experience in forestry research, including improving safety, increasing efficiency and reducing costs of steep slope forest operations.

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