Smart digital strategies for sustainable forest management

Tony Viveiros and Marianne Porteous
August 08, 2018
By Tony Viveiros and Marianne Porteous
Hardwood Renewal Survey and the Free to Grow Survey. Young regenerating hardwood stand.
Hardwood Renewal Survey and the Free to Grow Survey. Young regenerating hardwood stand. Photo courtesy// Province of Manitoba
Aug. 8, 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.

Silviculture Surveys
In Manitoba, the Manitoba Forestry and Peatlands Branch conducts two main surveys called silviculture surveys. Silviculture is the practice of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health and quality of forests to meet its diverse needs and values. 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 (See image above). 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 (See image below). 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.

Fig2 FTGBlock
Free to Grow survey block. 
(Photo courtesy: Province of Manitoba)


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.

Innovative Digital Solutions
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.

Before beginning the new paperless process to collect silviculture field data with Collector and Survey123, we felt it was important that the renewal and free to grow survey workflows be understood from a GIS perspective. It became clear that survey data was being collected at two scales - the block scale and the plot scale (See image below). We also discovered that historical block information was required by field staff and that plot surveys needed to be pre-established and evenly spaced along survey lines. Given these requirements, we determined that field staff should use a web map in Collector, with survey block polygons and survey plot points, to help locate plots and with navigation to and within blocks.

Fig3 Survey v2
Similar to Hardwood Renewal Surveys, Free to Grow block also include scale and plot scale surveys. 


Before the survey web maps were created, we mapped renewal and free to grow file geodatabase schemas and added historical block information fields. However, because of the complexity of both the Hardwood Renewal and Free to Grow surveys, we determined that gathering information for these was more appropriate using smart forms than a web map. As a result, we configured the Collector web map popup to launch the Survey123 app, with historic block information pre-populated in each survey (See images below).

Fig4 Surveys v2
Hardwood Renewal survey web map calling block and plot scale surveys.


Fig5 Popups v2
Configuring web map popups to launch Survey 123 with prepopulated answers.


We created block and plot scale survey forms using the desktop tool Survey123 for both the Hardwood Renewal and Free to Grow survey workflows. The smart form features of Survey123 permitted the display of questions based on previous selections and data pre-population. For example, if a density plot was selected in the renewal web map, this information was carried through into the Survey123 form and subsequent questions appropriate for a density plot were displayed. Additionally, the repeat feature of Survey123 allowed for the selection of two types of pest and damage severity in the block scale surveys.

Previously, with the paper-based renewal survey workflow, field staff assessed tally sheets to figure out the stocking category at each survey plot location. These plot assessments were then used to manually create maps depicting plot locations and their stocking status, such as stocked to hardwood, stocked to softwood or not stocked. We considerably improved this workflow by using FME Desktop by Safe Software, and automating the stocking status calculations by accessing the Survey123 data collected directly in ArcGIS Online. With stocking categories calculated as needed with the help of FME, we created a web application to visualize and print the renewal survey plot data (See image below).

Fig6 Map v2
Web application that symbolizes the plot scale renewal survey data captured using Collector and Survey123.

Field supervisors checked a sample of the block and plot scale Hardwood Renewal and Free to Grow surveys undertaken by field staff to make sure the surveys were conducted according to provincial methods and procedures. We also used Collector and Survey123 to address these check survey workflows by pre-populating the original survey responses into the check survey forms. A summary of the renewal survey workflow is outlined in diagram below. Of particular benefit to both check plot surveys is the ability to display total demerit points for renewal and Free to Grow infractions as field supervisors identify them. This Survey123 functionality allowed for immediate feedback on whether or not the original survey passed the check survey, i.e., if it was acceptable or required corrective action.

A Successful Digital Workflow
As the 2017 silviculture survey season nears completion, the consensus by field staff and management is that the move to a digital workflow has been successful.

While there have been many benefits, but the most important is - improved data quality through the use of smart forms and improved efficiencies through automated workflows.

Fig7 Workflow v2

The digital workflow has also made it easier to assess survey progress throughout the season. Survey results can be seen the same day and shared with all staff through ArcGIS Online. Field staff have welcomed the change, as the Survey123 form itself helped structure their block and plot data collection workflows. As well, having all the survey block and plot information available on the iPads was beneficial to them. For example, if staff were unable to access a block, viewing the next nearest one in Collector was possible. Further, it eliminated the need to carry several maps and block history paperwork all the time in the field.

Future work processing and analyzing survey data in ArcGIS Online with FME is expected to yield further efficiencies. Overall, Manitoba’s pilot program to collect silviculture survey information using Collector, Survey123, ArcGIS Online and FME has been a great success, improving efficiencies and data quality that support a sustainable forest sector.

"The public sector is often criticized for having repetitive and outdated processes, such as collecting data on paper and failing to share and report information effectively.  Advancing mobile geospatial technology in our public systems has transformed how we collect, share and manage data that moves us beyond the status quo and into the world of business value-added services," said Alisa Ramrattan, director of forestry and peatlands, sustainable development, Government of Manitoba.



This article was contributed by Tony Viveiros, GISP, and Marianne Porteous at Manitoba Sustainable Development. It was originally published in Esri Canada’s ArcNorth News.

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