Forests are dynamic and continually changing in response to a number of different forces: weather, drought, wildlife activity, proper management practices - and natural disasters, as was seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in October 2018. Reliable, current and comprehensive data on the state and shape of Georgia's 22 million acres of forestland play a critical role in informing decisions that need to be made in order to ensure their long-term health.
Documenting forestland changes is the everyday focus of a specialized group of Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) foresters. The 13-person Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) team is responsible for measuring and quantifying the "condition" of 6,000 land plots across the state. One 24-foot radius plot represents approximately 6,000 acres, the statistical benchmark needed to supply accurate data about forest resources in Georgia.
"I love it!" said FIA Forester Mark Barrett, with a genuine smile on his face. "Our office is the truck, and we get to see some properties that are really beautiful."
GFC FIA Forester Mark Barrett uses a hypsometer to relay measurements to his receiving partner. (Photo courtesy of Georgia Forestry Commission)
Reaching some of those properties to collect data on species, diameters, heights and the depth of duff can be nearly impossible in some circumstances. Waist-high weeds, hidden hazardous holes, and briars that spring up from nowhere to cling and cut into rugged clothing, can make the going quite slow. The FIA foresters are always prepared, though, with long, solid sticks for beating back the tangle of formidable vegetation.
Once on a plot, FIA partners spend almost a full day conducting standard plot measurements such as forest type, tree growth, tree health and terrain slope. FIA foresters use a number of modern tools to document their work. An Allegro data recorder, which resembles a chunky TV remote, is used by one forester to input every value collected. A hypsometer, which looks like small, vertical binoculars, sends a base signal to a corresponding "shooter," carried by the other forester. The distance between trees and their respective diameters and heights are calculated, yielding further data on canopy cover, stand age, regeneration status and disturbances such as insect damage and hurricane rubble.
Only when prompted does this team recount stories about dicey days on the jo: kayaking down the Flint River to access a plot on an island; being in the crosshairs of a gun held by an agitated landowner; wading through a Lee County creek; and the duty of picking off more ticks per day than most people would find endurable.
"We always wear our fluorescent orange vests," said Mark Freeman. "A lot of time is spent getting landowner permission to be on their property. Especially during hunting season, we want to make sure they know we're there. The local GFC office gives us a lot of help communicating that, and we really appreciate that."
GFC FIA Mark Freeman measures tree diameter on a Calhoun County FIA plot.
Nine Decades and Counting
The Forest Inventory and Analysis program started when Congress acknowledged the need for information about the condition and supply of the country's timber resources. According to the United States Forest Service (USFS), the program, formally established in 1930, "collects, analyzes and reports information on the status and trends of America's forests: how much forest exists, where it exists, who owns it and how it is changing, as well as how the trees and other forest vegetation are growing and how much has died or has been removed in recent years."
It's important to keep these data as up-to-date as possible. The USFS requires FIA inventories from each state every year, with reports produced every five years. A five-year cycle is the best possible turnaround to produce usable data for its many purposes, according to GFC FIA leadership. Federal budget constraints resulting from the 1995 Farm Bill delayed the reporting process to a seven-year cycle, which creates too much lag in the forest trend data. However, gap-funding by some Southern states, including Georgia, has enabled the establishment of a five-year reporting cycle to accurately reflect changes to faster-growing forests in the South.
Data collected by USFS-certified FIA foresters from permanent sample plots (about 20 percent measured annually), selected at random, is supplied to the USFS' Southern Research Station in Knoxville, TN for analysis. Together with FIA statistics from across the country, the numbers reflect the status of the U.S. forestry resource. These data help analysts identify important trends for the future and help the forest industry use credible data to make decisions.
Every department in the Georgia Forestry Commission is home to employees who are dedicated to serving the agency's wide variety of customers. The men and women in GFC's Utilization Department recognize each statistic and land-use change they record has a tremendous impact on the future of forestry in Georgia. With attention to detail today, it's clear our forest resource can be proficiently managed for a sustainable tomorrow.
"These data don't exist any place else," said Georgia Forestry Commission Director Chuck Williams. "It's critical to forestry in Georgia and the U.S., and it's publicly available. The U.S. Forest Service is the premium forest resource organization in the world, and FIA is a big part of it."
Stasia Kelly is a media relations specialist with Georgia Forestry Commission. Stasia is focused on telling the story of forestry and the immense impact of the industry on Georgia's environment, economy and heritage.
To learn more about the Forest Inventory and Analysis program, visit www.fia.fs.fed.us.
Georgia Forestry Magazine is published by HL Strategy, an integrated marketing and communications firm focused on our nation's biggest challenges and opportunities. Learn more at hlstrategy.com