Monitoring Forest Threats with New Open Forest Observatory

Ecologists Are Building a Drone Mapping Tool and Public Database to Help Manage Forests

aerial view of forest burn scar shot by drone
A forest management tool being created by UC Davis aims to help solve problems such as thinning overly dense forests and tracking tree death among wildfire survivors. Team lead Derek Young captured this image by drone in 2019 of the burn scar left by the 2014 Eiler Fire in California's Lassen National Forest. (Derek Young/UC Davis)

Environmental managers will have a powerful new resource for helping our forests survive and recover from wildfire, drought and disease.

UC Davis ecologist Derek Young is leading a team to develop the Open Forest Observatory, a pioneering project combining drone photography and forest mapping with machine learning, remote sensing, big-data crunching and open information sourcing. The observatory will offer technology so friendly that users will need only a few weeks to learn it, instead of a year. And, for the first time, the project will make the resulting database available in a central repository.

“We'll be producing the data and the tools to help others address vexing forest ecology and land management questions,” explained Young, an ecologist with the Department of Plant Sciences.

Man in yellow hard hat stands in forest previously burned in wildfire

A $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation is funding the observatory over five years, including work at two partner institutions. It takes off this month, offering the potential to lift ecological research to new heights.

Drone-based forest imaging

Thanks to high-definition cameras now available on drones at relatively low cost, the observatory will host a database of detailed, on-the-ground information, down to the sizes, species and health of individual trees.

Young’s team will develop software for creating these maps using best practices in drone-based forest imaging. As part of their previous work, they comprehensively codified those practices for the first time. Researchers and forest managers will be able to access the observatory’s maps to answer their own questions, or use its tools to produce new maps and share them through the observatory.

The project also will offer drone pilot training for UC Davis students, plus drone piloting and forest mapping concepts to high-school students in towns affected by wildfire, Young added.

Male researcher Derek Young flies drone in conifer forest
UC Davis ecologist Derek Young tests a drone in 2020 in the Modoc National Forest in northeastern California. Drone-mounted cameras have gained higher resolution while falling in price, bringing their map-making potential within reach for the Open Forest Observatory project. (Tara Ursell/UC Davis)

The result is expected to be massive amounts of information, organized to allow all kinds of variables to be compared over space and time.

The project also will offer drone pilot training for UC Davis students, plus drone piloting and forest mapping concepts to high-school students in towns affected by wildfire, Young added.

Wrestling forest density

The observatory can help scientists wrestle urgent problems, such as how to thin dangerously dense forests despite insufficient budgets.

“Forest thinning in the densest stands in the driest locations will be an effective way to reduce tree mortality during extreme drought," Young said.

In many areas, trees are growing up to 400 per acre, compared to 80 per acre in a healthy forest, according to the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. With 25 million forested acres in the Sierra Nevada, tree density raises wildfire risk and endangers watersheds up and down the range – and water supply for three-quarters of state residents.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges that natural resource managers are facing right now,” Young said.

The team’s grant also includes looking at how – and whether- new trees sprout in burned areas. They’ll start with maps created before a fire, then revisit the area to map surviving trees.

“To predict how seeds will disperse into these burned areas, you need to know where the surviving trees are, how they are arranged spatially, what species they are and how dense they are,” Young said. Burned areas could be tracked into the future to see how long survivors last and how quickly new vegetation establishes. 

Tyson Swetnam will spearhead data storage and processing through the University of Arizona’s CyVerse initiative, a platform for cloud-based computation and analysis. Michael Koontz will head development of an open, reproducible workflow to create digital maps, plus training to use them, through the University of Colorado’s Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

This story was originally posted on the UC Davis Plant Sciences website.

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Media Resources

  • Derek Young, UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences,
  • Kat Kerlin, UC Davis News and Media Relations, 530-750-9195,  

Video clip: Derek Young launches drone. 

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